City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Visiting Art Deco at the V&A recently was both enjoyable and frustrating. The exhibition itself comprised a well-stocked tour of Art Deco objets from the Paris exposition des arts decoratifs in 1925 onwards. It features some incredible pieces. I'll long remember the Auburn 851 Boat Tail Speedster, pinned at an angle as if racing around the curves of a Milanese test track; a canopied silver-plated bed for the Maharaja of Surguja, made by craftsmen of Udaipur in central India; Hugh Ferriss's sketches and models of delirious New York; an astonishingly striking poster for the Daily Herald, essentially avant-garde; and the entire entrance of the Strand Palace Hotel, 1930-31, a vision in light and chrome. Oh, and the radios! The radios … broadcasting from the future, in bakelite, chrome, and plastic.

But, firstly, the exhibition felt a little underwhelming as a whole; a bit quick, a bit too easy to rattle round it in an hour. Surely a Deco exhibition should leave you with the sense of being pleasurably overwhelmed?

Secondly, why did the exhibition remain confined to the exhibition? Why not extend beyond the walls of the building? London is so well stocked with many fabulous examples of art deco—why not give out a little card, containing an annotated map of places to visit to see the 'real thing' in situ? Much of Deco exhibition had to focus on objects, due to the logistics of being contained within a building. However, there's no reason why the exhibition couldn't have made a spectacle of London; to extend the canvas of the show out of the building and into the street.

Of course, one could do some awesome location-based services around wifi/GPS positioning, in terms of annotating physical space with history, as often mentioned before ("This is how this building looked in 1933; hold your PDA up at this angle to superimpose on the building"; "Listen to this a personal history of visiting the Strand Palace, where you're standing now"; "Agatha Christie lived here; follow her walk to her publishers" etc.). But, for now I'd accept that the V&A may not be quite ready to get into that. Of course, the V&A exhibition site could've had a 'collaborative build' Deco-spotting site i.e. "I've just spotted that the Hammersmith Odeon has exceedingly nice Art Deco lamps, ceiling roses, and wall fittings in it" (which it does, by the way), plotted on to postcode or GPS reading etc, built up by users over time etc. Easy. Ish.

But either way the V&A could at least have made a nice leaflet! The exhibition website does have this page plotting buildings on to London, which begins suggest what could be. But I only found this a couple of months later, and it's a fairly shoddy effort; artfully hidden, with zero interaction.

It could have illustrated Deco walks, produced in conjunction with Time Out books of London walks, say (but don't get me started on them. Part of a range of publications from Time Out that promises so much and should be a joy to use, yet are so badly designed it's untrue. Not visually, though they're not exactly wonderful, but functionally. Maybe this warrants a forthcoming entry on city guide books.)

There are so many good examples of Deco around. I keep discovering more, and muttering under my breath that "the exhibition should've led me to this one".

For instance, the quite beautiful Daily Express building on Fleet Street—unwitting star of the film The Day The Earth Caught Fire, and a living testimony to an age when newspaper journalists cared (the excellent State of Play notwithstanding). Then the old Daily Telegraph building (featuring insanely ostentatious clock) a few doors up.

Almost every other street in Pimlico features casually magnificent flats in various states of disrepair. Whole swathes of Bloomsbury, Holborn, Clerkenwell, and Fitzrovia are studded with prime examples of Deco buildings. London seems to excell at an almost oxymoronic quiet, mannered Deco, as seen in the Heal's furniture store, say. This is notwithstanding the famous, obvious contenders, such as the Hoover building, or the numerous old cinemas from their golden age.

I happen to work in one such example—Broadcasting House, admittedly now wrapped like a Christo piece, but glorious nonetheless. Glimpsed recently in BBC2/4's Orwell programmes, the best way to experience the building now is to wander past its shrouded looming presence on the way up the RIBA exhibition mentioned previously (now closed, sadly). In fact RIBA itself, opened in 1932, is another supreme case study in London Deco. Circumnavigate the dangerously good bookshop and check out the bannisters, fittings, and tall windows of the restaurant space.

I live opposite another. Senate House, at UCL, which isn't particularly Deco, but of a similar vintage. These gems which are modernist rather than Deco should be a 'related link', leading to Berthold Lubetkin's Highpoint I and II and his penguin pool in London Zoo, the Isokon building in Hampstead, and so on.

There are numerous other examples of Deco, and the related, sometimes oppositional, strains of English modernism. It's a huge missed opportunity by the V&A.

One gem mysteriously absent from the Art Deco exhibition, and accompanying vast book, as well as London Secrets, Time Out Book of Walks etc, is Eltham Palace, in, er, Eltham. Oddly, the links section of the Art Deco website mentions it, but that's it. The entrance hall alone is surely one of the most extraordinarily beautiful incarnations of Deco to grace these shores. It seems bizarre to omit it from the exhibition, and certainly the book. Built by Stephen Courtauld, it's a rich and slightly odd brew of early 20thC Scandinavian design and modernist rationality, with the opulence and splendour accorded to the really very rich of the 1920s. They even figured out how to fit a loudspeaker system which ran through the whole house. Brilliant. But why so little public knowledge of this masterpiece?

Art Deco closes 20th July. Despite above, it's worth a look.


2 responses to “Journal: The city as exhibition”

  1. anna Avatar

    I absolutely agree that the exhibition seemed very much confined to something pleasant and safe. And it certainly seemed incongruous to paint an image of this age (one marked by all things opulent, provocatively grotesque and overly-eager to be bought) in this sort of mediocre shopping mall format (a kind of “oh that’s nice dear” mode.)
    The idea of stretching the exhibition to locations beyond the museum’s walls is a good one. But surely more could have been made of the idea of static journies within the interior space of the exhibition itself. The era’s predilection for the exotic – for conjuring up the far-away and, with the flick of a chequebook, filling our enclosed interiors with the stuff of distant lands – was clearly recognised by the V&A. But the tiny photographs of the Paris Exhibition could have been projected into life-sized proportions so that visitors were able to re-live the experience of moving in and around the beauty of foreign strangeness in the space of a few steps. Similar methods could have been employed to illustrate the cruises, hotels, Paris bars and domestic interiors. I don’t think any image at all was given of the Maharaja’s incredible art deco palace. The message of the era seemed to be one that discouraged the public from looking too far outside the safety of their immediate surroundings – there is enough that is intricate and decorative in those spaces to keep one pre-occupied for many moons and in this dream-like whirl the bothersome troubles of the real world seemed no more than a distant memory. This sense of the fantastical denial seemed mute within the V&A.


  2. ben Avatar

    just wanted to say, great post dan
    packed full of links too
    and thanks for reminding me of urban75
    – the first thing to make me homesick since leaving south london for the French countryside 2 months ago


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