The resounding echo of deco


Posted on Sun, Mar. 07, 2004


The resounding echo of deco


Please don’t call them “Deco-heads.” Cherie Oliver of the Art Deco Society of California prefers something more refined and less obsessive, such as “Decophile.” Whatever they call themselves, Bay Area fans of the style that marked the 1920s and 1930s have one thing in common — lining up to see the vast exhibit of art deco objects at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. This exhibit from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened Saturday, featuring everything from the reconstructed entrance to a London hotel to a streamlined Electrolux vacuum cleaner. But for many Bay Area residents, including more than 600 members of the Art Deco Society, the style is a year-round pursuit. When Oliver, the Art Deco Society’s president, bought a house, she made sure there was an extra room to hold her vintage clothing. In Danville, a couple decided to turn their townhome into something like a 1930s New York townhouse. A Lafayette couple were inspired to collect period furniture by their first visit to the Paramount Theatre, Oakland’s art deco landmark. And Oliver tells the story of someone who ripped out a modern kitchen to install one from the 1930s. “Extremism in the pursuit of art deco is no vice,” she says with a laugh. Some fans are obsessive, others escape only briefly into art deco style, which was originally an escape from the gloom of the Depression of the ’30s. Here are the stories of some East Bay people who live as Nick and Nora of the “Thin Man” movies might have lived.

Mister Deco When Richard Fishman says that art deco was the most important design movement of the 20th century, you’ve got to believe him. After all, he has been a Bay Area collector and dealer for more than a decade, he lives in a breathtaking apartment in a landmark art deco building on Lake Merritt, he plays swing guitar in the Martini Brothers Band and he is the co-founder of an events production company called Mr. Rick’s Martini Club. He also drives a 1938 Buick. If anybody leads the art deco lifestyle in the Bay Area it is Fishman, whose place in the Bellevue Staten Apartments is tastefully filled with furniture, accessories and artwork that suggest a grand but comfortable home in the 1930s. It’s not crammed with a collector’s horde, though: Fishman has two stores on Grand Avenue in Oakland, with the updated name Art Deco, and a showroom in San Francisco for that. Even with a collection so extensive, Fishman was eagerly looking forward to “Art Deco 1910-1939″ at the Legion of Honor. “It’s the most important exhibition that’s ever been done on art deco,” he says. “There are some incredible artworks that are obviously museum-quality, or they wouldn’t be there.” On the other hand, he notes, art deco style became widespread, and the exhibit includes everything from Cartier jewelry and a Chanel gown to streamlined plastic radios and a deco-inspired water container that would have been sold with Westinghouse refrigerators. The historic high point came in Paris in 1925 with “L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” an international exhibition of modern decorative and industrial arts. The shorthand description “art deco” wasn’t coined until the 1960s. Initially, in the 1920s and ’30s, “whether you were rich or not, you had some art deco in your life,” says Fishman. “Some of the dishes would have been sold at the 5-and-10-cent store, and plastic art deco jewelry, now a huge collectible, was available to the masses.” There have been commercialized revivals of the style, the most recent in the 1970s, but Fishman dismisses those as “a superficial interpretation of what they thought art deco was.” For him, art deco doesn’t ebb and flow: “It’s never been out of my realm.” But then he’s been part of the Bay Area revival through the Martini Brothers Band. So-called “cocktail culture” has fueled interest, and the parallel idea of fans wearing vintage clothing to go out drinking and dancing, he says. The emotional appeal is a mixture of fantasy, nostalgia and melancholy, he says, with a big splash of make-believe glamour. “The glamour and sophistication of the ’30s has not been repeated. There hasn’t been a ‘new sophistication.’”

A black-and-white motif “I’ve always wanted to live in a black-and-white movie,” says Barrett Lindsay-Steiner, and now he does. The Walnut Creek home he shares with A.C. Griffing is filled with art deco furniture, sculpture and other artwork, including decorative grilles from a movie theater. The color scheme is restricted to black, white and gray wherever possible. Lindsay-Steiner, a well-known local theater director, believes he caught the art deco bug when he was a teenager and his grandparents gave him a book about music from the 1920s. He was also affected by the black-and-white decor in the movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” set in the ’20s. Art deco, he says, remains “the pinnacle of design in the 20th century” and the last unique style, not a revival or adaptation. That staying power is amazing, considering the initial style trend lasted only about 15 years, from 1925 to the beginning of World War II, he adds. The recent remodeling of their home helps showcase art deco artwork, particularly sculpture, says Griffing, a corporate meeting planner. He is a fan of authentic art from the period and authentic French deco style, “the geometric floral decorative pattern as opposed to the machine-age look.” The sound of the 1930s is in the air as well as Griffing, Lindsay-Steiner and another singer revive the Jesters, the trio that originally performed with the Royal Society Jazz Orchestra. The Jesters reunite for a performance at the Legion of Honor on May 7. Lindsay-Steiner and Griffing enjoy the look of art deco, but they want to live comfortably. “We’re not living in the ’20s,” he says. That contrasts with the deco lifestyle of San Francisco pianist Peter Mintun, who claims to own “the oldest living refrigerator.” While his career is filled with rehearsals and performances, Lindsay-Steiner considers his home a respite from the theater. Maybe it’s the black-and-white contrast. “It doesn’t seem theatrical,” he says. “For me, it’s very restful.” Martinis, dry “We hated all our furniture,” says Gary DeAtley, recalling the dilemma he and his wife, Lucy, faced when they downsized their living space into a three-bedroom, two-story “townhome affair” in downtown Danville. “We wanted something that reminded us of a townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side.” They wanted it to be comfortable, elegant, adult and functional. “It dawned on us that what we liked was art deco,” says Gary. First they checked out contemporary furniture with a sleek period style, such as Barbara Barry’s line for Baker Knapp & Tubbs, but they ended up discovering “Mr. Rick,” Oakland art deco furniture dealer Richard Fishman. The first step was remodeling the dining alcove into a bar, and then came the vintage furniture, most of it from the 1930s: “fabulous” bar stools, a dining table with slide-out leaves, swivel chairs that originally graced a French hotel, a coffee table with shelves that open like a flower, and a reproduction floor lamp. Their first exposure to art deco interior style was in the “Thin Man” movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. Still, that wasn’t exactly what they wanted. “What you saw in the movies was more dramatic and glitzy,” Lucy DeAtley says. Their furniture was originally made for apartments in France and England, not for Hollywood studios. “We’re not interested in living on a movie set, or in a museum,” she says. “We love the scale, the clean lines and the sophisticated feeling. It’s really very soothing — and comfortable.” The DeAtleys don’t dress in vintage clothing from the ’30s, but they do mix martinis at their art deco bar. “I like gin martinis, very cold and very dry,” says Lucy. “With just a whisper of vermouth,” adds her husband.

‘Casablanca’-inspired If you were making a movie about a couple falling in love with art deco, you couldn’t come up with a more evocative opening scene than this: a revival showing of “Casablanca” at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland’s grandly restored movie palace built in 1930. That’s how it all began for Jeff and Linda Brader, who have transformed their Lafayette home with a custom-built art deco-style mantle and vintage furniture and accessories — including Jeff’s collection of period clocks and cigarette lighters. Not to mention an art deco pool table that fits into a recent addition to the house. They’ve also been back to the Paramount to see “Casablanca” several times, and they’re active in events of the Art Deco Society of California, often dressing in vintage clothing. “I wore a pair of nylons with seams recently,” Linda says. “Now I know what women mean in old movies when they say, ‘Are my seams straight?’” “It’s not an obsession,” Jeff says. “It’s more like the comfortable feeling I got when I walked into the Paramount. It was so simple, so beautiful. You don’t see things like that any more.” Similar designs, though on a much smaller scale, enhance the couple’s home. “It’s like having a piece of history in your house,” he says. After discovering the Paramount seven years ago (Jeff says it reminded him of classic buildings in New Jersey, where he grew up), the couple began buying art deco and other vintage items at antique stories and while on vacation. Their first purchase was indeed modest: a Westclox “Moonbeam” clock, with a flashing light alarm. Linda has added kitchen gadgets and a fully restored 1931 Sunbeam mixer Both of the Bradens find art deco emotionally appealing. “In today’s complex world, it seems like a simpler time, and some of us hope that those days will come back,” Jeff says. “I just like the old way of life,” adds Linda, “when ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen. There was politeness and respect.”

Robert Taylor covers fine arts for the Times. Reach him at 925-977-8428 or

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