Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Couch Potato Goes Deco

Art Deco Icons.
The complete series [DVD] 
presented by David Heathcote.

Art Deco is synonymous with glamour: Fred and Ginger, Busby Berkeley, Tamara de Lempicka, cocktails and long cigarette holders on ocean liners.  Settle down on the couch for a look at the 1930s through neon-tinted spectacles as David Heathcote guides us round four of Britain's Art Deco icons.

First we spend a night at Claridge’s Hotel in London’s Mayfair. I hope the BBC picked up the check! The art deco suite is glamorous yet comfortable; we are allotted our own butler/valet, who starts by unpacking and putting everything away. Sinking chin-deep into a bubble bath, we notice two bell-pulls beside the tub: one for the butler and one for the maid. The mind boggles.

We explore the hotel's Art Deco makeover of the 1930s, which transformed it from a staid Victorian establishment into a fashionable, up-to-the-minute destination for the rich and famous. The sign above the smoking room door says Fumoir, and the room positively exudes sophistication. You expect to see Paul Heinreid lighting two cigarettes and giving one to Bette Davis. Smoking was sexy and glamorous in the Thirties!

Next stop is the 10-storey London Trans-port HQ. When it was built in the 1930s, it was the highest skyscraper in London. It was an ambitious and controversial design that incorporates a lot of Deco features, but I didn't think it was really a typical example of an art deco building. 

What I liked much more, was the tour of several art deco tube stations from the era, the magnificent collection of London Transport posters, and the old kiosks and signs in the museum. Is anybody else old enough to remember those enamelled WAY OUT signs, with the pointing hand emerging from a perfectly starched cuff?  

Next we visited Casa Del Rio - a remark-able Art Deco house hidden away in rural Devon. I had never heard of it before. It was built in the 1930s by Walter Price, who visited California and fell under the spell of Hollywood. He decided to recreate Pickfair, the glamorous mansion of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, on a hillside in Devon, facing the sea. Very beautiful, seen from below.

Casa del Rio is a transplanted Hollywood Spanish hacienda, its Deco interior complete with black-and-white marble floors, marble staircase whose treads look like piano keys and lots of chrome, black glass, and mirrors. 

I liked the electrical gadgets that were the hallmark of stylishness in the era when anything American was considered modern and cutting-edge. The not-quite-automatic toaster, the Bakelite radio, the futuristic (now retro!) cocktail shaker … very glamorous but seen through modern eyes a bit lame. Quite endearingly so!

For our final adventure, we board the Orient Express at Victoria Station in London and head off for Venice. (It is interesting to compare this episode to the Orient Express documentary with David Suchet, also a BBC production.)

Fellow-passengers are James and Shirley Sherwood. James bought fifteen much-neglected Orient Express carriages in the Seventies, including the two in which Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was filmed. James and Shirley talk engagingly about the challenge of restoring the original Art Deco luxury of the romantic train.

I liked the luxurious, yet practical fittings of the sleeping compartment and the elegant, beautifully appointed bar and dining compartments. The Alpine scenery is also spectacular. 

I'm sure the passengers enjoyed their three days' opulence on wheels, but they would have to be relieved to disembark in Venice, because for all its luxury, the train has no air conditioning and the washing facilities are a bit basic: no shower!

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