Recently I did a blog post on set design inspiration in a Mid Century Modern style and referenced our production of “Dial M For Murder” that was set in the mid 1950s. As we start to get ready for our next show, Patrick Hamilton’s “Rope”, written in 1929, I’ve been thinking about another major design trend; Art Deco.
The term Art Deco refers to a visual design period that originated in France after World War One. While it was still seen into the early 1940s, the style is most commonly associated with the 1920s and 30s. It featured bold, geometric patterns, rich colours, metallics, and modern Machine Age imagery. It is associated with modern glamour and mass production (which did not have the negative connotation then that it often does today).
Now for a recap – when starting to research a period’s design aesthetic, I start by looking at the following three elements:
- Silhouette: What sort of general styles and silhouettes were common, and where can we find those in both vintage and modern pieces?
- Colour: What colours were popular at the time? And in particular, what colour schemes would have been used then that are rarely used today?
- Accents: Are there any accent pieces (lamps, phones, statues, vases etc.) that are frequently associated with the decade?
They always say there are three things everyone wants when putting together a show; for it to be good, fast and cheap. The catch, of course, is that you can only ever have two of the three. For most of us in the theatre world, “cheap” is a necessity, and personally I always want “good” as well, which means I have to put a lot of time into researching and sourcing materials. If you want to have a great looking set, start early. Very early. And take your time looking around not only vintage stores (they can be pricey) but thrift stores, garage sales, and hell, even checking out what people throw out on garbage day. You know what they say, “one man’s trash…”.
Time to start the research bit:
Art Deco Palette: 1920s and 30s Colours:
Colour schemes of the Jazz Age were anything but subtle; while many pastels and secondary colours were in use they were often used as a background against bold, contrasting pieces. Sherwin Williams has a great section on authentic period colours that you can check out for some specifics. Purples and blues were very popular, as were accents of red or orange. Black trim alongside a tropical colour like peacock blue or a bright mint green was common.
Possibly more important than the colours were the patterns used on anything from walls to curtains to furniture. Intricate geometric patterns, often featuring shell or fan shapes adorned often multiple pieces in a Art Deco room. Tiled floors in black and white were also a common feature.
Of course, not all homes of the 1920s and 30s were complete examples of the Art Deco style, however, many had some features that can be associated with the look; in the photos below, you can see examples of minimal Art Deco features (like the tile work in the kitchen floors or on the bathroom wall) alongside rooms that are the epitome of the look (like the gorgeous bedroom and the circular interior entryway).
Art Deco Silhouette: 1920s and 30s Furniture
Art Deco furniture is about glamour and bold statements; each piece is like a work of art. Complex geometric designs alongside beautiful organic curves created a look of extravagance. Often different types of wood were mixed within one piece, creating interesting patterns and design, and mirrored furniture and metallics were all the rage.
Art Deco Vibe: 1920s and 30s Accent Pieces
Bronze sculptures are a staple of the Art Deco look. Gorgeous women (often either naked or wearing a flapper-style outfit) sometimes held a light, or simple stood there as a beautiful accent. Greyhounds were the “it” dog, and are often seen on anything from lamps to ashtrays. Panthers were also a common sculptural subject. The lamps of the period were more about artistic beauty than practically shining light in the room.
Bygone’s Art Deco – How to Fake The Look Today
As we prepare for “Rope” I have started a pinterest board collecting some of my favourite examples of Art Deco; you can see it here, and I will update this once our set design begins.
For those of you trying to do this look before then, here are some tips on how to fake it and do it on the cheap:
Painting a Art Deco design on a simple tray
Art Deco Tray: The simplest and easiest way to create a Deco piece is with paint. If you’re new to stenciling, try starting with something small, like a tray, and if that is successful you can move on to a larger piece like a dresser. HGTV has a great tutorial here to get you started.
Moldings create architectural detail.
Art Deco Molding: If you’re doing a show with flats, try adding some architectural detail above doorways or windows. This can be done with wood or even cardboard. For a great tutorial on this look (one meant for the home, remember, cheaper materials could be used onstage), check out The Joy Of Moldings.
1980s Finds: Finally, as always, when setting a stage on the cheap, your local thrift shop is your best friend. The 1980s saw a revival of Art Deco style and so you may be able to come across some pieces on the cheap. Look for things with the right “bones” – changing the colour of a dresser or adding a throw pillow on a sofa is easy, but you don’t want to take on anything that doesn’t have your desired silhouette. If you don’t have a lot of money for set pieces, but want to make an impact, stenciling designs on the flats may be a good way to go.
Again, not everyone in the 1920s or 30’s had art Art Deco home – country styles were common in the 1920s, and during the Great Depression of course, homes were rarely decorated with anything new. So before you start to collect deco pieces for your set, make sure that it fits the show – this style is associated with the upper class, new money, “modern young things”. A great look but not for everyone.