The Art Deco Society UK

Was it by coincidence that the formation of the Art Deco Society UK (ADSUK) in 2019 coincided with the publication of Art Deco Britain: buildings of the interwar years by Elain Harwood, Historic England’s 20th-century architecture specialist? Elain argues that we should do more to celebrate our art deco buildings and reminds us of the notorious bulldozing of the Firestone factory, on the Great West Road – London’s first art deco building – over August bank holiday weekend in 1980, just hours before it was due to be listed.

Among London’s listed art deco buildings, Senate House literally stands out: it is London’s first skyscraper and was the second tallest building in London, after St Paul’s Cathedral, when completed in 1938. Designed by Charles Holden, it houses several libraries and institutes, and the administrative offices of the University of London (as well as being the venue for our annual CA Live! conference). An urban myth has it that Hitler wanted the building as his British headquarters; in George Orwell’s 1984, it serves as the HQ for the Ministry of Truth. ALL images: C Catling.

Outrage at the factory’s destruction led to the listing of 150 examples of interwar architecture, including Battersea Power Station, and boosted the membership of the Thirties Society (now the Twentieth Century Society), which had been formed the previous year with art historian Bevis Hillier as its first President. Hillier gave us the term ‘art deco’, the title of his 1968 book of that name, for what had been called ‘jazz modern’ or ‘moderne’ in the 1920s and 1930s; his name was derived from arts décoratifs, taken from the event that had popularised the style: the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925.

FAR LEFT Among London’s listed art deco buildings, Senate House literally stands out: it is London’s first skyscraper and was the second tallest building in London, after St Paul’s Cathedral, when completed in 1938. Designed by Charles Holden, it houses several libraries and institutes, and the administrative offices of the University of London (as well as being the venue for our annual CA Live! conference). An urban myth has it that Hitler wanted the building as his British headquarters; in George Orwell’s 1984, it serves as the HQ for the Ministry of Truth. LEFT The former Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden, completed in 1928, shows the influence of ancient Egyptian ornamentation on art deco. The replica cats flanking the entrance refer to the company’s Black Cat brand. BELOW The art deco relief over the entrance to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Gower Street, London, was sculpted by Alan Durst in 1927 and paradoxically depicts comedy (on the right) as a dour male and tragedy (left) as a smiling female.
The former Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden, completed in 1928, shows the influence of ancient Egyptian ornamentation on art deco. The replica cats flanking the entrance refer to the company’s Black Cat brand.

Archaeologists have every reason to celebrate the style: Britain’s first art deco building – Grade II*-listed High and Over, in Amersham – was built for Bernard Ashmole (1898-1988), Professor of Classical Archaeology at London University. Art deco was also strongly influenced by ancient Egyptian art – all the rage following the opening of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber in February 1923.

ADSUK aims to create a UK-wide network of regional representatives who will organise lectures, guided tours, and museum visits, but like all societies during the current pandemic, it relies on its free digital newsletter and social media posts to keep the flame alive. The website has a handful of well-illustrated blog posts that demonstrate the ways in which art deco came to influence every aspect of life – not least cinema and theatre design, seaside architecture, and grand hotels such as Claridge’s and the Savoy.

The art deco relief over the entrance to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Gower Street, London, was sculpted by Alan Durst in 1927 and paradoxically depicts comedy (on the right) as a dour male and tragedy (left) as a smiling female.

If ADSUK had not been formed, the centenary of art deco’s inaugural Paris event might have passed unmarked in Britain. As it is, you can count on ADSUK to do everything possible to raise the profile of art deco in the UK in time for the worldwide celebrations.

Further information
The society’s website is https://artdecosociety.uk/.
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