At Richard Fishman’s store, Art Deco Collection, the mostly European art deco merchandise attracted set designers from the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, who came to the showroom in San Francisco shopping for pieces to use on the show. European art deco furniture is polished, of high quality and expensive — think $8,000 and up. While Hollywood generally has deep pockets, not everyone does. If you are a fan of the style and want an art deco piece for your living space, we have a few tips on how to save money.
Before we get started, I want to share Fishman’s simple explanation of the evolution of 20th century design, because it made it very clear to me what art deco is and isn’t.
Here’s what he says: Think of a curlicue that, over the decades of the 20th century, slowly straightened until it dropped the curve and became straighter. In the pre–art deco period, known as art nouveau, lines were organic, curly and flowery. Then came the trademark waves of art deco, roughly from the 1920s to the 1940s. Those waves eventually straightened, making a pit stop in streamline moderne. Next came midcentury modern. As you look at midecentury interiors and exteriors and objects, you’ll see those curves and lines in action.
How to Save on Art Deco
Buy American pieces. Within art deco, there is a split between American and European schools. European pieces are uber-high-quality craftsmanship and constructed of fine materials; American-style pieces are more from the machine age. The latter have less art and less deco, explains Peter Loughrey, director of Los Angeles Modern Auctions. For this reason he prefers to call American pieces of this period American moderne. The artistry in European pieces makes them highly collectible and expensive. American work comes cheaper. Let’s define “cheaper,” though: Instead of paying $24,000 for a French Jules Leleu sideboard, you might pay $6,800 for a Donald Deskey desk. Other notable American names to shop for are Walter Dorwin Teague, K.E.M. Weber and Wolfgang Hoffmann, who was the son of Austrian deco furniture maker Josef Hoffmann (of the European school, whose objects are highly prized and very expensive).
Avoid highly collectible names.
Ruhlmann in furniture; Lalique in glassware, for example. They don’t come cheap. Fishman advises looking for those who trained under Lalique but broke off to start their own companies, like Muller Freres and Degué. Loughrey likes the work of American glassmaker Ruba Rombic, who is sometimes associated with Lalique. “But the faceted nature of its surface is more akin to cubism than to art deco,” he says. And instead of Deskey, Loughrey says people should look at Gilbert Rohde. “He was probably just as talented, but since he was focused on mass-produced works, his pieces are more readily available,” he says.
Troll auctions, estate sales and eBay. You never know what you might find. But since many pieces are unsigned, you do have to know what to look for or buy at your own risk. While metalworker Edgar Brandt did sign his pieces (see photo), the untrained might not be able to spot a fake signature. Forgeries happen in furniture just as in art, Fishman says. Also be careful of phrases like, “in the style of Ruhlmann” or “from the school of …” That doesn’t mean Ruhlmann.
Purchase a fixer-upper. The same principle applies for furniture as for houses. If you are willing to buy something in imperfect condition and fix it, you can get a deal. Remember, many of the pieces are now closing in on their centenarian birthdays.
Shop reproductions. Reproductions can be quite good. Be warned: A reproduction is not always cheaper, but it will more likely fit a modern lifestyle with its wires and chords. A reproduction paired with a statement piece can be magnificent, Fishman says. John Tribble of J. Tribble Antiques in Atlanta sells original art deco pieces, mostly from France and Hungary, as well as reproductions, like the two sink bases shown here that he had crafted in England. Prices for them start at about $3,800.
Tips to Save on Art Deco Pieces Or just go ahead and splurge on one statement piece. Art deco bars are pretty phenomenal, with secret compartments, mirrors and glass etchings. The bar of the 1930s was a focal point. Yes, they drank a lot. This bar is in the streamline moderne style, dated to the late 1930s. It was found in Missouri and is currently at Art Deco Collection.