Shanghai’s Art Deco Master

Art Deco master 001
Book cover

Like a number of those before on this book review is a biased one.  Just like “Peace at the Cathay“or “Promenades dans l’ancienne concession Française“, the book was written by friends of mine, in that case Spencer Dodington & Charles Lagrange. Furthermore, I was actually involved in the project itself, though only for a tiny bit. In any case, this books really fills a hole in Old Shanghai studies.

Having lived in Shanghai for about 10 years, and discovering its history and architecture, I long dreamed that somebody put as much efforts into studying work of  French architecture firm “Leonard, Vesseyre & Kruze”, as that was the case for British firm Palmer & Turner and Hungarian architect Laszlo Hudec. It took a team of a Belgian and an American authors to actually deliver in-depth study of the French firm. LVK was a major influence of the architectural style of Old Shanghai and this books truly highlight this heritage, focusing on the life of principal architect Paul Vesseyre.

Thanks to enormous archive research, in-depth knowledge of Shanghai and access to the archives of the Vesseyre family, the authors give a precise account of the early life of the architect, as well as his voyage to Shanghai. Just like contemporay Laszlo Hudec, Paull Vesseyre architecture studies were interrupted by WW1. He then returned to France, taking part of rebuilding one of main French Art Deco cities, Reims before sent by French construction firm Brossard & Mopin to Tianjin, and then Shanghai. He met Alexandre Leonard there, and both created firm Leonard & Vesseyre architects in 1922. Their debut work was the new building of the Cercle Sportif Français on Rue Mercier, today’s Okura Garden Hotel on Maoming Lu. This major work became an anchor of the French Concession and insured the success of the company and both men personal wealth.

Leonard & Vesseyre created most of the modern buildings in the French concession. They worked for the Catholic Church, the municipality and most prolifically for the French developer FONCIM. Major pieces include Béarn and Gascogne apartments on Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai Lu), the Dauphine and the Boissezon apartments. LV&K was also the designer of the series of neo-normandy style houses aroung Jian Guo Lu and Gao An Lu (see portrait of an old neighbour and further posts on this topic), as well as many buildings in that neighborhood. All of them  and many more are analysed in the book, making it an essential piece of the knowledge and understanding of Old Shanghai. The book is currently only available in English, published by Earnshaw book. A French version in under preparation.

1925, when Art Deco dazzled the World

Exhibition Poster
Exhibition Poster

Last blog post was written about an exhibition of Paris 1930’s art in Shanghai, this blog post is about another exhibition about Art Deco that took place recently in Paris. It is actually long overdue, as the exhibition closed its doors in early March. My long stay in France, gave me the opportunity to see it in Palais de Chaillot (itself an Art Deco master piece) in Paris.

This was the last major exhibition in Paris about Art Deco since 1975, and the 50 years celebration of the “Exposition Internationale des Art Décoratifs” of 1925, from which the Art Deco expression comes. It was designed to commemorate the birth of Art Deco, as well as to show how French Art Deco expended to the World. The new style from the 1920’s, with it’s geometrical and very lean design was a revolution, breaking for the overcrowd of ornaments of the Art Nouveau style. Long before being called Art Deco, it had become the symbol of modernity, celebrating liberation from the madness of WWI. This period is called in French “Les années folles (the crazy years)”, showing the energy and creativity of the period. Being still at that time the World Center for fashion and design, Paris was the center for the creation of this new style before it took off and spread all over the world. Strangely enough, Art Deco style was not considered much valuable for a long time in France, as the country has many much older pieces available. With the years passing, it seems to be in fashion again.

1925 Exhibition Poster

The exhibition was an essential display to understand how this new style invaded all forms of art from architecture and interior design to textile, fragrance, automobile, ships design. In the boiling cultural mix of 1920’s Paris, many people got inspired from it. Ideas and fashion spread fast in the artistic community, with such famous figures as painter Tamara de Lempicka, dancer Josephine Baker, fashion designer Coco Chanel as well as Lalique (whose glass decorations were used for the Cathay Hotel, Peace Hotel today). The new style also greatly influenced the design of large cruse ships, symbol of modernity and travel way before today’s airliners (see post 2 months in rationnaire for details).

I brought back the exhibition catalog (available in French only… how French can that be), but it would be way to large to share here. Searching the internet, I found a nice video about the exhibit that will give the feeling for it.

The exhibition did not stop at showing Art Deco in France. Although it really does not leave much space for Art Deco in America or in the British Empire (like Art Deco wonders like Napier, New Zealand or Mumbai) the exhibition showed the development of Art Deco in the French colonies. Besides great Art Deco in North Africa and Indochina, I was nicely surprised to find a pavillion dedicated to Shanghai. It mostly focused the work of French architect firm Leonard, Vesseyre and Kruz (more about them soon) forgetting others like Hudec but it was really nice to find a small piece of our city in the exhibition.

Paris Art Deco comes to Shanghai

Exhibition annoucementVisiting Boulogne’s 1930’s museum 2 years ago was fascinating. Coming from Shanghai Art Deco, the origins of the art movement became so clear by comparing both cities art from the same period. The most amazing discovery was surely to find out that Sun Yat Sen’s mausoleum satute in Nanjing was created by French sculptor Paul Landowski, who also crafted world famous statue of Christ in Rio. (Click here to read the full story, with post “From Boulogne to Nanjing”)

Little did I imagine that the same exhibition would actually come to Shanghai only a year and half later. Thanks to long term Shanghailander Philippe Cinquini, part of the collection was brought to Shanghai including studies for the statue of the father of modern China. The exhibition is displayed in the Shanghai Art Museum (former China pavillon at Shanghai Expo 2010) and has been extended til end of May . For details, follow the link to Shanghai Art Museum exhibition page . (reservation in advance compulsory).

Shanghai Tang @ Cathay Cinema

Renovated Cathay facade
Renovated Cathay facade

1932 Cathay Theater (see an old picture on post “Ligths on Huaihai Lu”), a movie theater on Avenue Joffre (today Huai Hai Zhong Lu) was one of the anchors of the French Concession. It was designed by Hungarian architect CH Gonda, a less famous countryman of Laszlo Hudec, who also designed the Bank of Communication building (Bund 14) and the Capitol theater (now part of the Rock Bund project). The Art Deco theater had one large room originally seating 1080 people, with 30 rows. Friend who were in Shanghai before me fondly speak about the original Art Deco interior, including “couple seats” that could, interestingly enough, seat two people next to each other without separation. I have never seen it, as the cinema was ruinovated in 2003,with the large room split into small ones and original inside lost forever. Despite the survival of the building’s outside, many Old Shanghai enthusiasts very pretty scared of seeing this piece of architecture and history surrounded again by scaffolding in the beginning of the year. Turns out that the result, the new Shanghai Tang flagship store is much better than expected.

Store main entrance
Store main entrance

Richemont’s Shanghai Tang is one of my favorite clothing brand. Originally started by HK designer David Tang in 1994, it was purchased by the international group in 1998. The brand is strongly influenced by Chinese fashion from the 1920’s and 1930’s which is surely why I like it. It is noted for its use of bright colors and references to Old Shanghai in it’s shop design. Shanghai Tang store music was for a long time “Shanghai Lounge Diva“, one of my favorite CD’s. Considering that Shanghai Tang already had a shop a few meters up the same street and that the Richemont group also occupies the 1920’s twin villas on 796 Huai Hai lu, only a few blocks away, the move is not surprising. Previous attempts of the group at Old Shanghai buildings renovation was definitely a good sign.

Art Deco Staircase
Art Deco Staircase

Since most of the cinema interior was destroyed in previous renovation, the inside it totally modern. Architects have had to cut the store space into several parts to fit the specific of the building, giving more charm to the whole shopping experience. It is somewhat comparable to former HK Shanghai Tang store on Peddler Street. The nice surprise is the stair cases coming up from the cinema entrance. It is difficult to judge whether they are the original cinema staircases that were previously hidden or a modern re-creation (the original theater had no balcony, but they could have been stairs leading to above offices or projection room that were previously hidden). In any case, the Art Deco design really fits the original style and and fashion of the time of the building construction. Somebody really made an effort for this part and it shows, creating an atmosphere and a real connection between the store and the building. The main entrance hall of the theater has also been renovated in somewhat art deco style separately from the store. I guess designers where not the same, as the new inside mock-up Art Deco is much less stylish as the upstairs store.

The combination of Cathay Cinema and Shanghai store shows that combining old Shanghai building and modern retail requirements are possible in a tasteful way. Hopefully it will inspire some more projects in the area.

Peter Hibbard’s Peace at the Cathay

Peter Hibbard's new book
Book cover

Peter Hibbard has long been one of the leading scholars on Old Shanghai. He wrote the best (if not only) guide to the Bund: “The Bund Shanghai: China faces the West”, as well the privately published book celebrating the opening of Shanghai Peninsula, covering the history of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Hotel corporation. Peter Hibbard is also known to have revived the Shanghai Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society , an association that was at the center of cultural and intellectual life of Old Shanghai and has come back to life in recent years. With his years in Shanghai and is long term interest for city’s history, Peter always mentioned several book projects, with the most exciting surely an history of the Cathay Hotel (today the Fairmont Peace Hotel). Having started researching in the mid 80’s, the book has finally become reality.

Author Peter Hibbard
Author Peter Hibbard

With in-depth knowledge, historical photos, documents never seen before and years of passion in the making, Peace at the Cathay is the definitive guide to what is now known as The Peace Hotel. The book covers the history of the spot of its predecessor, the Central Hotel, as well as the competitor on the other side of the street, the Palace Hotel (now Swatch Peace Hotel). This is where is learned that the Palace Hotel was renovated in 1925 by Spanish architect, Abelardo Lafuente.

Obviously, the main part is focused on what became known as the Sasoon House (still known under this name in Shanghainese), and its most well known host, the Cathay Hotel that opened in 1929. With its revolutionary design, highest end service and luxury shops  offering the very best available at the time, the Cathay quickly became the center of the high class social life in Shanghai and a magnet for international tourists. Owner Victor Sassoon, with his office in the building and private apartments on the top of it, probably became the most famous Shanghailander ever and many celebrities stayed at the Cathay, as Shanghai was becoming part of the international scene.

Metropole Hotel
Metropole Hotel

Sasoon hotels also opened the Metropole Hotel n 1932 (and its sister building the Hamilton House). They completed the existing Cathay apartments in the French Concession, and were joined by another Art Deco icon of Shanghai, the Grosvenor house in 1935. All of them are also covered in the book, as well as the later use of the building after 1949.

Despite the in-depth research and the quantity of information it brings, the book makes a good read as well as a pretty coffee table book. Unfortunately, only a few hundreds of copies were made in the first print, so people interested in it should buy it fast (as far as I know, it can be bought at shop in the hotel itself as well as by contacting the author). Hopefully, as second print will be made on a larger scale, making the original copies even more valuable.

Peace at the Cathay is definitely the book about the Cathay Hotel, from the best source. We are lucky it is finally available.

Lyon Art Deco

Art Deco building near Lyon Part Dieu
Art Deco Building in Lyon 6th district

Although I knew very little about Art Deco before coming to Shanghai, I have developed a strong taste for it while living in the city. The style varies from one country to another, but Art Deco is very recognizable  (together with its follower streamline design). Old Shanghai was a modern city in touch with the leading world fashion of the time, so Shanghai Art Deco buildings echo others built in the same period.

Washington apartments, Shanghai

During my last trip to Europe, I had spent some time in Lyon, ending by chance in one of the districts with Art Deco buildings, including the one on the picture left. The triangular shape reminds me a lot of the Sassoon House (home of the Cathay Hotel, today Fermont Peace Hotel), but even more of the Washington Apartments (see picture below).

With little decoration, both buildings are edging towards streamline design. They must be from about the same period of late 1920’s early 1930’s. Washington apartment was completed in 1928, I guess the Lyon one around the same time. After more research, I found out that this Lyon building was built in 1930 and was called Palais de Flore. One of the Art Deco highlights of the city (update 2022).

I then noticed another building with nice wrought iron decoration, very similar to the one found on the Cathay Apartment (today Old Jing Jiang hotel). Stylized flowers is a classical art deco motives for this kind of ornament, and there is definitely a parallel between both although their location are so far apart.

Lyon was fast developing in the early 20th century and was a pioneer or “avant-garde” city. One of the major Art Deco feature is known as the “Halle Tony Garnier”, the former slaughterhouse of Lyon that is now a major concert hall. This story also echoes Shanghai story of the former slaughterhouse being redeveloped into a creative center including a major event venue, i.e. 1933 in Hong Kou district. Tony Garnier also made other projects in the city, particularly the “Etats-Unis” (i.e. USA in French) district.

Halle Tony Garnier in Lyon (Photo Wikipedia)

Another major feature of Art Deco style is Lyon close suburb of Villeurbanne. Built in the same period by architecte Morice Leroux, the city is famous for its double tower “gratte-ciel” i.e. skyscraper in French from 1934. It was one of the first of its kind in France, and also reminds me of the of Art Deco / Stream line design towers from Leonard & Vesseyre firm in Shanghai like The Dauphine on Jian Guo lu (see post “The return of the Dauphine“).

Gratte-Ciel, public housing in Villeurbanne

In a city with more than 2000 years of history, Art Deco buildings are not standing out as much as they would do in Shanghai or the USA and I needed research and luck to find them. I found an Art Deco building by random in medieval area of Saint-Jean (see picture on post Shanghai Flashback), but there are just so many more. Hopefully some effort will be made to attract the interest of Art Deco fans. Just like Shanghai in 2015, Lyon could be a great venue for the World Congress on Art Deco. (2022 update), Paris will host the World Congress on Art Deco in 2025, so Lyon will have to wait a bit. I took another trip to Lyon in 2022 with more pictures of Lyon 3rd district Art Deco.

World Congress on Art Deco Shanghai 2015

The World congress on Art Deco is the main international gathering celebrating Art Deco in all its forms. It was initiated in Miami, where the Art Deco district on Miami Beach is the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world. The first congress was initiatd by the Miami Design Preservation League in 1991. Each congress is organised by a local Art Deco enthusiasts association. Held every two years, the congress took place in the following cities:

– 1991 – Miami, USA

– 1993, Perth, Australia

– 1995, Brighton, England

– 1997, Los Angeles, USA

– 1999, Napier, New Zealand (see post: Napier Art Deco Festival)

– 2001, Tulsa, USA

– 2003, Cape Town, South Africa

– 2005, New York, USA

– 2007, Melbourne Australia

2009, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

The last Congress took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2011. During this event a Shanghai delegation lead by Patrick Cranley and Tess Johnston founders of Historic Shanghai, earn the distinction or organising the 2015 World Art Deco Congress in Shanghai. After the coming Congress in Habana in 2013, the Shanghai World Congress on Art Deco will be a major event, helping preserving and valuing Shanghai historical buildings.

The organisation of the Congress will surely take a lot of time, energy and manpower. The event will require guided tours of major Art Deco buildings for large crowd of people, as well as working sessions along with speakers and venues. It will attract a large crowd of tourists in need of accommodation, help, translation and many other services. At the same time, it will put the focus on Shanghai history along with the Art Deco heritage. This is great opportunity for Old Shanghai preservation, and somehow I already know I will play a part in it.


Shanghai art deco furniture

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 internationale des arts décoratifs“, 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 that is quite specific to Shanghai.

Shanghai Art Deco seater

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 manufacturedmostly for wealthy customers or in very smal 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 schale and became the origin of modern design.

Art Deco wood carving

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.

Shanghai Art Deco Seats
Art Deco pair of seat with Chinese characteristics

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 reasonable 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

Recommended shops:
– Shanghai Old furniture: corner of Julu lu et Maoming Lu. The shop mixes old European antic et Old Shanghai Antic
– Lao Jo – Jing Xian Lu 152-154

Yangtze Hotel, home of the stars of Old Shanghai

Old Shanghai was a major touristic attraction. Although international travel at the pace of cruse ships and hydroplanes was much slower than in today’s jet age (see posts “No Flight to Shanghai”  and “Two months in rationnaire“), hotels of all categories where numerous then. A number of them have now been renovated, like the Cathay Hotel (see post “Return to the Sassoon House“) or created from Shanghai old monuments (see post “Shanghai Club revival“). One of the less wellknown is the Yangtze Hotel, currently the Langham Yangtze Hotel.

Yangtze Hotel, Hankou Road
Yangtze Hotel, Hankou Road

Yangtze hotel was planned in 1932 in a plot next to the newly built Moore Church designed by László Hudec. Near the Shanghai race course and Nanjing Road shopping street, the hotel was located in the entertainment area of the International Settlement. Designed by Chinese architect Paul Lin Pan 李蟠, the hotel was built by Pan Shang Lin 潘尚林 building firm. The same firm, who belonged to the family of famous Old Shanghai author Lynn Pan,  also built major landmark of the period including Park Hotel on People Square, Picardie Hotel on Heng Shan Road and the head quarters of  Bank of China on the Bund. The hotel external design is one the best examples of Art Deco architecture in Shanghai. Balconies in particular were decorated in the famous “Zig Zag Style” complementing the geometrical feel of the whole construction. Although is the middle of the city, it is less noticed at the corner of Hankou Lu and Yunnan lu, both one way streets away from it.

With is very modern design and location in the heart of the entertainment district, the Yangtze hotel quickly became the favorite of the entertainment crowd. The Great World entertainment center (corner of Xizang Lu and Yannan Lu) was only a few steps away, along with the theaters in the area. The hotel was also very close to the shopping mecca of Nanking Road, with Wing On department store among others. Finally, it was also very close to the race course as well as theaters such as the Grand Theater and the Metropole Theater. The Yangtze Hotel attracted Chinese celebrities, coming to dance on it’s famous spring wood dance floor in the Yangtze Ballroom. It was home to the first all Chinese Jazz Band, the Clear Wind Jazz Band. It’s resident singer was the legendary Yao Li who is most famous for the song “Rose, Rose I love you”.

1930's luggage label, Yangtze hotel, Shanghai
1930’s luggage label, Yangtze hotel, Shanghai

The hotel produced luggage labels like the one above in Art Deco style, perfectly fitting the hotel’s design and time period. I particularly like the Art Deco Chinese characters designs. Hotel luggage labels have long disappeared along with the attraction of the Yangtze Hotel for Chinese celebrities.

The interior of the hotel was ruinovated in the 1980’s and 1990’s in an effort to modernize it. It was used as a cheap hostel, like its sister hotel the Astor House on the North Bund. Original decoration including the famous spring wood floor was lost forever. From 2007, the hotel was renovated to put it to high level standard. Although not the original one, the current decoration is Art Deco inspired with a grand staircase and a stained glass ceiling similar to the ones of the time, like in the Cathay Hotel. With its new renovation the hotel still has a lot of charm both outside and inside, making it a nice place to stay in the middle of the city, but away from the modern hotels towers nearby, like a little time travel to Old Shanghai.

Shanghai flashbacks

First of all, I want to wish all readers a happy new year with this first post of 2011.

This entry is not so much about Shanghai, but about sight, locations and feelings that reminded me of Old Shanghai during my recent trip to Europe. Navigating old Shanghai is often about trying to find in Shanghai, buildings and artifacts that are similar to the ones from Europe and other parts of the world. Coming from Shanghai, a trip to Europe becomes the opportunity to look at European cities, looking for  Shanghai flashbacks. Such trips are also often opportunities to go back to places I have lived in, as well as to re-connect with friends and family. This one was no exception.

Budapest Art Deco
Budapest Art Deco

First step of the trip was in Budapest where I have lived many years. Most buildings there are either no-classical, or art Nouveau as most of the city was built in the late XIXth century and early XXth century. Post WWI was not a great time for Hungary, so the city has very few art deco building, though I managed to spot one near Moskva Ter, one of the more recent part of the city. Art Deco there is very recognizable, with the lack of ornaments compared to the neighboring earlier buildings, as well as the use of geometrical lines. It could argue that this building is also Bauhaus style, which sometimes looks very similar to art deco. Funny enough, Art Deco in Shanghai was mostly developed by a Hungarian architect in the same period, Laszlo Hudec. I discovered more Art Deco buildings in a later trip to the city, see post “Budapest Art Deco” for more details.

My time in Budapest was mostly about spending time in cafes, enjoying friend company. When I came to Shanghai from Budapest in 2004, one of the things I missed the most were cafes, the right places to meet friends and spend a few hours in the afternoon. At that time, the only approximation was Xin Tian Di’s Starbucks, and later Vienna Cafe (that I like so much because it reminds me of Budapest). 7 years later, Shanghai has a large choice of bars and cafes, often located in the old houses of the French Concession. Cafe culture has come back to Shanghai, and I love it… this is what I think sitting on some of the Budapest Cafes.

Savoy Apartments, Shanghai

The trip continued to Lyon, that was built much earlier than art deco time but a number of art deco building can be found. One of the best example is surely the “hotel college” in Saint-Jean. Located in the medieval district, the 30’s building is just out of place in the decor, probably as much Broadway Mansions or Savoy Apartments was when they were built. The first element to be seen is the incredible art Deco door, a wonderful work of iron, similar to some found in Shanghai. The building itself is art deco, somewhat similar to the Savoy apartment on Chang Shu lu. It is also very similar to some of the long gone buildings on avenue Dubail (today the North South elevated highway), that were destroyed in the 90’s. Just like seeing European architecture is Shanghai reminds me of Europe, seeing similar architecture in Europe…. reminds me of Shanghai, bringing one of those Shanghai flashbacks.