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Art Déco in Italy- II

Continues from Art Deco I.

Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel (Ph. wikimedia.org)

In Art Déco, the forms and designs for the decoration of furniture and ornamental pieces made wide use of arabesques, with round and oval shapes prevailing over squares and rectangular designs. Surfaces were heavily faceted and filled with small mirror inlay. In architecture, spires and pinnacles became prevalent, for example as in the case of the Chrysler building in New York. There were numerous illustrious interpreters of this style, ranging from Coco Chanel in clothing design to Tamara de Lempicka in painting.

Until then, the only metals used in the manufacture of furniture and ornamental objects were bronze for the more important pieces, and brass for such things as handles and locks. The Art Déco movement introduced the use of other metals such as aluminum, wrought iron, and chrome.

In design, dynamics and action were exalted in accordance with the new doctrines of futurism that considered a motorcycle in motion to be more beautiful than the most famous of Greek statues. In posters and decorations, the human figure once again appeared, but it was not the cold and frigid figures in Roman or Greek garb, but rather nudes exhibiting florid bosoms and prosperous curves.

Green Bugatti Art Deco
Green Bugatti Art Deco
‘In Green Bugatti by Tamara de Lempicka (Ph. wikimedia.org)

The End of the Art Déco Aesthetics

But incredibly, and here we begin the second act of our tale, only a few years later, after the end of the Second World War, this style was not only abandoned, but also labeled as the pinnacle of bad taste. Never before had such a change taken place in aesthetic sense in such a short period of time. Home furnishings and objects given as presents by parents to their children for their weddings, were in a matter of a few years relegated to basements, with almost a sense of shame, or else as in the case of closets or chests of drawers, used to store agricultural tools and utensils in country homes.

A new concept of good taste which concentrated on the essential was triumphing. This was the moment of popularity of Swedish furniture, of linear and squared design, of geometric uses of wood and steel. Modern Japanese style, so bare and austere, was considered the new model to be followed. The dolls and elegant greyhounds of Capodimonte, the little terracotta figurines of the 1700s, the glass horses of Murano – all objects that had always found a place on top of the chests of drawers of middle-class homes, were either thrown out or given away to household help.

Art Déco lights at Milan Central Station

But now we come to the third and last act of this story, which relates to the current period and particularly affects Italians, the distant sons of Roman sculptors and heirs of Michelangelo. They soon tired of pieces of furniture and decorative objects of skeletal appearance, so that this essential style, after a brief and ephemeral period of glory, was relegated to the area of office furnishings, where practical aspects are appropriately important. There has then been a return to a more Mediterranean style, taking into account classic design, but above all there has been a rise in the popularity of earlier styles. Household decorative items, not only those of distant ancestors or grandparents, but even those that existed only a few years ago in the homes of parents, have become very sought after objects. And since these items could not be called antique, instead the term Modernariato was coined to describe them.

Accordingly, there was a tendency for one to recall that in the attic there was a little piece of furniture that at the time that it had been received as a gift, had been considered of horrendous taste or completely kitsch. Such pieces were recuperated, restored, and then proudly placed in the living room in a place of honor as a piece of modernariato.

So these objects soon regained their status and made a triumphant return to the home, with the strong approval of elderly parents who had wondered for many years where their gifts had gone.

Today if you are in Milan and visit the stalls at the Fiera di Senigaglia (Fair of Senigaglia) or the little street market of the “Obei Obei“, or if you are in Rome and wander around one of the local markets or else the large Sunday market Porta Portese, and if by chance you fall in love with those decorative dolls, or a ceramic harlequin, or crystal fish, or worse yet of a little furniture bar with sparkling mirrors, don’t think that you can get away with spending a modest amount, but rather prepare yourself for a substantial quotation.

And together with the little pieces of shiny curved furniture, statues of incredible porcelain ladies with splendid greyhounds on leash and pairs of horses in opaque glass with fantastic manes – these items have again become part of home decoration along with reproductions of old posters, such as those for the inaugural evening of an opera or for the maiden voyage of a transatlantic with its smoking stacks, or for the opening of a night club with artists and black jazz bands, such as were then in style.

I speak of reproductions because the original posters have become collectors’ items sold at Christie’s or other auction houses dealing in prestigious antiques. In any case the return to popularity of these items in such a short span of time underlines one important fact: that they did not represent a style that corresponded only to prevailing taste, but rather that they met the precise aesthetic values of their historic period and hence are entitled to be considered a true style that, as such, can never become outmoded because it represents a firm point in the evolution of taste.

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