All Style and No Substance

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Review of 'Art Deco' exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Art Deco embraced the modern world. The exhibition blurb tells us that Art Deco 'reflects the plurality of the contemporary world, unlike its functionalist sibling Modernism, it responded to the human need for pleasure and escape'. So not unreasonable then to expect fun, excitement, excess and speed. It is billed as something of a blockbuster show, and it costs £8 to get in.

Well, it's not like that. It is a lot smaller than I expected given the hype, and it has a heavy emphasis on the lifestyle of the French haute bourgeoisie, and surprisingly little on mass manufacture, or the points at which it touched the lives of ordinary people.

Lots of space is given over to the 1925 Paris Exhibition. You can marvel at an exquisite sharkskin and ivory chest of drawers shaped like a woman's torso. Debates about form and function mix with the surreal and the exotic to be realised as armchairs, desks and table lamps for the rich. You can gawp at the silks and satins in designs referencing Egypt and the Orient that adorned them during the cocktail hour. The exotic is remade and marketed for the elite.

A tiny part of the exhibition is given over to the export of Art Deco design back to the corners of empire, but again the concentration is on the rich and the luxurious. A maharaja's silver bed holds pride of place alongside a rather dodgy portrait of him kitted out like Fred Astaire. You get barely a taste of the emergence of cultural globalisation.

When it comes to travel it has posters, costly Louis Vuitton luggage for those luxury Atlantic crossings, and little more. This was the age of speed and streamlining, of film and photography. Surely more could have been done? Visitors crowded round one little gem, a video monitor showing footage of the maiden voyage of the Atlantic liner Normandie. Jean Vivie, an early pioneer of colour film travelling on the boat, made it. We wanted more of this.

Hollywood, the Art Deco fantasy factory, was represented by projections of Fred and Ginger. There is a film programme running in conjunction with the exhibition at the Barbican, so perhaps that is why they only reference it here. Art Deco's great monuments, the New York skyscrapers, are again referenced by film projection and not much else. On your way to the exit you pass the rich boy's sports car that adorns the poster for the show, followed by a tiny array of mass produced objects. Plastic replaces ivory, aluminium replaces silver. As you leave there is a poster for the 1939 New York World's Fair. And that's it.