Anything Goes

An art deco tour of Virginia in all its Jazz Age splendor.

     I arrive at the Bolling Haxall House in downtown Richmond just as a gaggle of feather-headed dames in black gloves and smiling men in penguin suits step from their car out into the night. It would look like a scene from an old TCM flick, or HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” except that they exit from a Chevy Tahoe. 

     Our destination is the Jazz Age Preservation Ball at an 1858 Italianate-style mansion, the perfect place to have a Great Gatsby flashback. Tonight’s sold-out soiree is being hosted by the Art Deco Society of Virginia, a Richmond-based club founded in 2012 whose members see themselves as ambassadors for the eclectic art deco style—and lifestyle—that was the rage in the Roaring ’20s and art moderne ’30s, the days of flagpole sitting, speakeasies and Busby Berkeley musicals.

     “Art deco was the last full style movement of our time,” says Bradley Hubbard, tonight’s top-hatted master of ceremonies and ADSVA board member. “There’s art deco music, art deco architecture, decorative arts, furniture, advertising, films, interior design … every facet of society was somehow affected by it.”

     Its name derives from the 1925 “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” a Paris showcase of luxury decorative items that accentuated the new, modern, and avant-garde. The designs on display were streamlined, sleek, symmetrical and bold, with icons and flourishes appropriated from Egypt, the Far East and Africa. This machine-inspired decorative world signified sophistication and modernity; it became, as critic Martin Greif wrote in his 1976 book, Depression Modern, “the design movement that captivated the world between the two world wars. It eventually touched all aspects of style, influencing the appearance of everything from perfume vaporizers to gas station pumps, vacuum cleaners to cocktail shakers, and fashions to automobiles.”   

     In the end, the jazz ball will raise $3,000 for Richmond’s Byrd Theatre, built in 1928. “We want to take you back into the ’20s,” says Society founder Olivia Lloyd. “We want you to feel as though you stepped into a time machine … as though you aren’t in Richmond in 2013.”  

     Tonight’s program features, among other things, the “hot jazz” of the Winn Jazz All-Stars who play songs like Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with cornet and all the New Orleans trimmings.

     “I find the music of the period incredibly appealing,” says tux-clad Ryan Lemar, 34, who prowls the filling ballroom. “Tonight, to have the sound matched up with the visuals … it’s sort of like how the people who do Civil War reenactments must feel.”    

     “We love vintage,” says 26-year-old Jennifer Zalewski, as fellow contemporary flapper Meagan Moore nods. “Usually it’s later decades but after watching ‘Downton Abbey’” the graphic designer laughs. The ladies are thinking of joining the Art Deco Society. “There’s an allure for the time period, the architecture, everything,” Moore, a 25-year-old project manager says.

     Maynee Cayton, owner of Bygones, a venerable Carytown vintage boutique, thinks she knows why the art deco era—and the image of the flapper especially—still resonates with women. “It was the days of early women’s lib, and I think women still feel solidarity. For the first time, they were free.” Rita Shiange, the society’s treasurer, echoes: “It was the first time that women could do what men could do. They could drink, smoke, vote.”

     Berkley, Virginia-born actress Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s prolific matrimonial dalliances, scandalous affairs and extravagant spending in the 1920s made her an international flapper icon. Hopkins survives in the lyrics of Cole Porter and Rogers and Hart tunes and is immortalized in “Makin’ Whoopee,” Eddie Cantor’s 1928 radio hit: “Should I make one man my choice/and regard divorce as treason/or should I be like Peggy Joyce/And have a new one every season?”

     Reflecting the era’s newfound permissiveness is a performance at the ball by the Garter Snaps—synchronized stripping duo Dolli Holiday and Deepa de Jour, who perform in the Richmond Burlesque Revue. Their feather fan duet is complete with strategically placed bows and veils, high leg kicks and rhythmic ankle walking. Tame by contemporary standards, such a performance would have been deliciously risqué in 1925.

     “We’re trying to raise awareness of this type of culture that is still very much alive today,” explains Hubbard. He points to popular movies (“The Artist,” “Midnight in Paris”) and TV programs (“Boardwalk Empire,” “Downton Abbey”) as proof that the desire to tap into the ’20s zeitgeist is happening everywhere, not just here tonight, in the Bolling Haxall House. “I live in this time period,” he admits. He’s not alone.

     Art Deco Society members celebrate the age by jazz-bombing public events, such as Richmond’s First Fridays Art Walk where they show up with Victrolas and conduct high-kicking Charleston dance exhibitions, and throwing fancy-dress flashbacks like tonight’s. But there’s a serious goal too, Hubbard maintains. “Preservation is at the forefront of our mission,” he says. “People don’t realize that once this style is eliminated, you can’t put it back. It’s gone.”

     Parker Agelasto, 5th district Richmond city councilman, is at the ball tonight. A politician with an art history degree, he sums up this ’20s time-crush: “To me it’s a symbol of how people look at the past, and they think about the free lifestyle that people lived, this new exuberance. And I think it was a time where people were enjoying themselves, and then the bottom fell out … and reality hit. And I think we see this repeat itself over and over in history.”

     But to true believers like Hubbard, it’s all about reliving the age of promise. “Previously there was the arts and crafts period where people celebrated man’s ability to make something with his own hands,” he says. “What you see with art deco is, suddenly, man’s awareness that the machine age was his creation, a celebration that man spawned this from his own mind.”

     Art deco seems to be coming back, I say to Barry Shifman, the Sydney and Francis Lewis curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, a few days earlier. “I wasn’t sure it ever left,” he says, knocking a dust bunny off of a pair of cobra-shaped andirons in the museum’s airy Lewis Galleries.

     Here, Shifman oversees one of the largest—and best—collections of art deco artifacts in the world. As a design style, deco didn’t have a grand creator, he says. It started in France in the 1910s as a reaction against the prevailing art nouveau and lasted roughly 20 years, although its influence would continue well into the ’30s and early ’40s.

     “Rich, exotic materials, geometric forms, influence of foreign cultures, unusual materials,” the curator says, listing the distinguishing features of classic art deco design. He points to a red and white deco birdcage commissioned by the French courtier Jacques Doucet to show the union of wood, parchment, and aluminum. He then gestures to the unique ornamentation on a futuristic six-legged ebony sideboard made by French decorator Andre Groult in 1913, explaining, “This is sharkskin.”

     What about the Egyptian motifs? I ask, pointing to a whimsical bronze clock, shaped like a pharaoh’s headdress with hieroglyphs for numbers, made by sculptor Albert Cheuret in 1929. “Egyptian is just one of many influences,” Shifman explains, leading me to an illustrated vase by renowned ceramicist Rene Buthaud from 1931.  “Here, you can see Polynesian themes, French Imperial colonies.”

     It’s becomes clear that art deco was an odd melding of influences. At the same time that it reflected the precision of the machine age, it also revealed a world fascinated with the exotic mystery of foreign cultures; the 1922 unearthing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, for instance, touched off a faddish interest in all things Egyptian, not only with the general public but with artists and designers worldwide.

     Virginia’s leading museum has this collection of more than 120 exquisite pieces because benefactors Frances and the late Sydney Lewis (who founded the now defunct Best Products chain) decorated their home with it and later donated it to the museum. Their art nouveau and pop art collections are similarly dazzling. The Lewises “were progressive, avant-garde, saw a market before it became a market,” Shifman says. “You couldn’t buy this stuff now.”

     Work by original deco designers is fetching record prices. In a recent sale of fashion designer Yves St. Laurent’s holdings, a chair made by the Irish furniture designer and architect Eileen Gray sold for $28 million. Says Shifman, “Gray is getting a lot of attention because she was one of the few female artists in Paris in the ’20s.” The VMFA collection includes a 1919 sofa made by Gray. “This is one of her best pieces,” says Shifman. “It’s based on Polynesian and Micronesian dug out canoes, but it’s lacquered with precious materials.”

     Another major piece in the collection is a breathtaking ebony and oak sun-bed with a huge flowering circle headboard made by Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, one of the great cabinet-makers, in 1930. “We have nine or 10 pieces,” explains Shifman, “Most museums are lucky to get one Ruhlmann piece.” Originally made for French actress Jeanne Renourad, this one-of-a-kind piece of art deco was originally kept in the guest bedroom at the Lewises’ home.

     The recessed zigzags and handsome rectilinear patterns of these works influenced mass marketed products but had their greatest influence on global architecture. I think about America’s surviving art deco buildings—from the stainless-steel arches that give New York’s Chrysler Building its trademark sunburst crown to Miami Beach’s celebrated “deco district” of grand hotels. Virginia, too, caught the deco bug, with nearly two dozen structures scattered throughout the Commonwealth.

     Back at the ball, as society member Andy Nishida conducts a Charleston lesson, groups of neo-flappers and their fellas have their photos taken in the lobby along the Bolling Haxall’s exquisite staircase. With the band’s cornet player taking a solo in the background, you can just picture Zelda Fitzgerald throwing herself down these spiral steps in a fit of drama.

     Olivia Lloyd, channeling Jean Harlow and adorned in an ornate, open-backed gown she made herself, says that this is all about escaping, if for only a short time, into another world. “You’ve got The Great Gatsby and wonderful parties and dancing and flappers—what’s not to love?  I think, especially now, when we look at all of our economic issues, staring down our own Depression, we desperately need to have some fun. We need to dig in and kick up our heels and live life.”

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

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