Although it was only named in the 1960’s, Art Deco was the dominant style for modern design in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. Named after the 1925 Paris “Exposition des arts decorartifs”, the style was dominated by simplified geometric patterns, inspired by nature and exotic countries. It also introduced streamline design that it is closely associated with. Art Deco came to Shanghai in the 1920’s, being developed in architecture and graphic design. It was also largely used in furniture design, in a way quite specific to Shanghai.
Art Deco furniture followed two different tracks: The origins of Art Deco was found in Europe, particularly in France. Art Deco furniture there were created by highly trained craft masters and manufactured mostly for wealthy customers or in very small quantities. They used highly refined materials including precious woods and were created for an elite that could afford it. The second track was then developed mostly in the USA using more affordable material like steal and industrial manufacturing techniques, it created items on a large scale and became the origin of modern design.
Shanghai Art Deco furniture followed a pattern combining both tracks while using resources specific to the city. The ancestral art of Chinese wood carving was used to create modern pieces following art deco design. Since the manpower was cheap and plentiful, Shanghai Art Deco furniture were crafted like the French ones, but using less precious material and manufactured on a large schale.Wood carving replaced precious wood inserts in furniture decoration, creating highly modern and decorative pieces at an affordable price. The result was a unique combination of craft and industry.
Symbol of modernity, Art Deco furniture where widely adopted by the middle and upper class of Shanghai that was fast developing in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. They followed the Art Deco movement in style but were often adapted to local traditions. Best examples are pairs of seaters separated by a tea table, or mahjong tables that are specific to China. Just like traditional Chinese furniture, they were often more decorative than usable. Hard seated Shanghai Art Deco chairs remind more of Ming Dynasty traditional seats, that comfortable European seats. Art Deco furniture and other related items such as radio sets and electric fans became ubiquitous in Shanghai. In a city obsessed with modernity, Art Deco furniture became the mainstream style like nearly nowhere else. The style fade away in the 1950’s but Shanghai residents kept them for long time because of lack of replacement. With plenty of new choices available from 1990’s, these old pieces were often discarded, replaced by new and shiny ones. They are now often used by designers in Shanghai to give the feeling of Old Shanghai in an interior. In the last year, they have become fashionable as antics and prices have climbed significantly, but it is still possible to find the right piece at a reasonnable price.
Recommended books on Art Deco in Shanghai:
– Shanghai Art Deco, Deke Erh and Tess Johnston, Old China Hand Press (Hong Kong), 2006
– Shanghai Style, art and design between the wars, Lynn Pan, Joint Publishing, 2008