In search of... Art Deco in London

Our capital may not have the impact of Miami or New York, says Amy Lamé, but look closely and you'll see some fine examples of the 1920s style


Why the fuss about Art Deco?

Why the fuss about Art Deco?

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has just launched "Art Deco 1910-1939", the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind ever. The show focuses on Art Deco as an international style, with painting, sculpture, fashion, photography, film, architecture, furniture, jewellery and lots more. The term Art Deco came from the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, held in Paris in 1925, but it was some 40 years later that the phrase was coined. Before that, Jazz Moderne – or just plain Moderne – described design and architecture using clean lines, curves, light and space, geometric shapes and patterns. It was the first truly global democratic movement in art and design, and influenced everything from jewellery to grand hotels.

Give me an example.

London's Strand Palace Hotel, for starters. Oliver P Bernard, a former theatrical set designer with no architectural training, created the hotel's glamorous foyer of internally lit, geometrically shaped glass. The hotel is still there, on the street of the same name, but the original foyer isn't.

Where is it, then?

At the V&A. In 1969 the museum's preservation team rescued the foyer hours before it was due to be demolished in the name of renovation. It was a close call, and luckily they took photographs before dismantling it. Now the foyer has been restored to its original grandeur and is the centrepiece of the V&A's exhibition. There are plenty of other Art Deco buildings in London, though.

In London? You must be joking.

London may not have the Art Deco "wow" factor of New York, Paris or Miami, but it has its own sleek, unique style. Deco in Britain was decidedly understated and subdued compared with that enjoyed by our neighbours across the Channel and Atlantic. St John's Wood Tube station, Hackney Town Hall, Muswell Hill Odeon Cinema and the Gala Bingo Club in Camberwell Road are all fine examples. They may not be as grand as the Chrysler building, but London does have a superb Art Deco masterpiece in Eltham.

Eltham? Now you're really pulling my leg

I kid you not. Eltham Palace in south-east London dates back to the 14th century and was once a royal residence. By the early 20th century it had fallen into disrepair, but Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased it in the 1930s and built a private house adjoining the medieval Great Hall. The couple restored the Great Hall and turned their newly built home into an Art Deco palace of unequalled sophistication. The entrance hall is illuminated by a stunning glass-domed roof, and the dramatic curved staircase will tempt you to do your best Norma Desmond impersonation while sweeping down it. The Courtaulds also took advantage of radical new technology: every room has synchronised clocks, an internal telephone system and centralised vacuum cleaner. Eltham Palace was painstakingly restored by English Heritage in 1999 and has probably the UK's finest example of an Art Deco interior.

I've booked my ticket to London, but modern hotels offend my Art Deco style sensibility. Where can I stay?

Check into Claridge's. It has so many original Art Deco features, you'll be cross-eyed with excitement. The hotel was built in the mid-19th century and later demolished with a view to expansion. It was rebuilt and given a modernist makeover in the 1920s by the designer Basil Ionides and the architect Oswald Milne. The moderne façade, engraved mirrored glass and sculptural lights in the form of leaping deer are all authentic Deco. In 1999, the foyer, reading room, smoking room and restaurant were refurbished in Deco-inspired design with modern lighting, textiles and fittings. Reality and reproduction meld seamlessly, from the Bakelite in-house phones on every floor, the silver cake-stands and table lamps in the tea room, to the luxurious leather chairs in Gordon Ramsay's dining room.

The rooms are divine: the satinwood furniture, martini-ready mini-bar and original Deco bathrooms are so stylish you will never want to get out of the sunken tub. Be sure to ask for an Art Deco room or suite when making reservations. If you can bear to leave your room, pop down to the bar for a Mayfair Flapper, Claridge's signature cocktail. If afternoon tea is more your style, recline in the foyer between 3pm and 5.30pm for a selection of Deco-influenced cakes, created in honour of the V&A's exhibition. Expect elegant towers of delectables iced with edible silver leaf – how very Moderne!

What about shopping?

Chic Flapper dresses can be had at Butler & Wilson on Fulham Road for a cool grand. The Gallery of Antique Costume and Textiles on Church Street in Marylebone is an inspired vintage treasure trove – it's pricey, but the clothing is in tip-top condition and each creation is unique. Just down the road, Susie Cooper Ceramics specialises in works by the 1930s artist and also has a wide selection of Clarice Cliff designs, Lalique glass, and furniture. Steinberg and Tolkien on the Kings Road has handbags, gloves, shoes and costume jewellery that will suit a fashionable, Deco-inspired lady down to the ground. If you are eager to match your outfit to your shopping environment, pop down to Tesco on the Great West Road.

An Art Deco supermarket?

That's right. The much-loved but derelict Hoover factory building was bought and renovated by Tesco in the early 1990s. The original façade was repaired, all period details restored and now it is a flagship superstore. All your household necessities can be purchased in surprisingly stylish surroundings.

But where can I go to show off my vintage glad rags? Not Tesco...

Stompin' at the Savoy is an occasional Saturday night dinner-dance spectacular. Enjoy a three-course meal in the swellegant surroundings of the Thames Foyer in the Savoy Hotel (020-7836 4343; www.the-savoy.com). Then watch the staff roll up the rugs as the Piccadilly Dance Orchestra presents tunes from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The next events take place on 12 and 26 April, 10 and 24 May; dinner and dancing from £52 per person.

What else is there to do?

Pound that pavement. Walking is the best way to see Art Deco London. The 20th Century Society (020-7250 3857; www.c20society.org.uk), a charity supporting the preservation of 20th-century architecture and design, runs tours, lectures and educational events for members. And on Saturday 5 April, readers of The Independent on Sunday can take advantage of an exclusive offer: a specially organised walking tour of Art Deco Kensington and Chelsea, from 11am-2pm, at a cost of £6 per person (booking is essential: contact the Society at the telephone number above).

London Open House ( www.london openhouse.org) is an annual event whichprovides access to many period buildings that are rarely open to the public, including the recently restored former Daily Express building in Fleet Street, a fine Art Deco construction. This year Open House takes place on 20-21 September. To rest your weary feet after all that walking, why not pop into the Barbican Cinema at Silk Street (020-7638 8891; www.barbican.org.uk), which is holding an Art Deco film season from 19 April-5 May, showing such classics as Grand Hotel, starring Greta Garbo, and King Kong, starring the Art Deco Empire State Building.

I'm impressed. Hit me with the details.

Art Deco 1910-1939 runs from 27 March-20 July at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London SW7 (020-7942 2000; www.vam.ac.uk). Open 10am-5.45pm daily, 10am-10pm Wednesdays and the last Friday of the month. Entrance: adults £8; senior citizens/students over 18 £5; children and people with disabilities free. Full disabled access to the exhibition.

Eltham Palace, Eltham, London (020-8294 2548; www.english-heritage.org.uk). Open: Weds-Fri and Sun and bank holiday Mondays 10am-4pm until 31 March, 10am-6pm to 1 April-30 Sept, 10am-5pm 1-31 October. Entrance from 1 April: adult £6.50, concessions £5, children over five £3.50. Disabled access: full access in the house and tea room, some uneven ground in garden. Touch panel and audio tour for visually/hearing impaired visitors. Disabled parking in the grounds.

Claridge's, Brook Street, London W1 (020-7950 5491; www.the-savoy-group.com); double rooms from £370. Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's; 020-7499 0099.

Amy Lamé is the arts and entertainment correspondent for BBC London 94.9FM

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