Updating The Classics: Art Deco Cool

by WOHe

It’s stylish and elegant. Cool, with attitude yet eminently classic. “Art Deco” reflects the softer side of North American Contemporary styling, residing in the luxury of a by-gone era.

First labeled “Art Moderne,” Art Deco was the dominant style in the 1920s and 1930s. An exuberant reaction to the austerity following World War I, the style continued to be seen in the 1940s though the name “Art Deco” didn’t apply until 1966.

Defining the style isn’t easy because it is a rich expression of many diverse and conflicting influences. The exotic roots of Art Deco those that emanated from the Orient, from ancient Egypt and from classic antiquities were approached from different angles and in a new light, and the resultant designs were distinctively modern and stylized.

In part inspired by Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s Tomb, the Egyptian-mania of the 1920s created design details that became a signature element of Art Deco. The papyri, lotus blossom and scarab beetles of Pharaohnic Egypt appeared in certain strains of Art Deco notably in the British and American versions.

Art Deco blend beautifully with the 21st Century Contemporary kitchens being created today. The geometric shapes, stylized natural forms, luxurious materials and exotic, colorful, richly detailed finishes can be used to design a room with a transcontinental sense of modernism.

Design Details
To sort through the various design elements and material options available for consideration in a room sensitive to Art Deco design, the kitchen specialist must first have a clear understanding of the sense of the space.

When creating an Art Deco space, consider the following:

  • An Art Deco room is “cool.” It has a self-assured attitude and disdain for fakery a bit of aloofness, edgy bravado and rugged integrity. An Art Deco room doesn’t copy anyone or anything.
  • An Art Deco kitchen is Cosmopolitan without being pretentious. Every line and every detail is at once refined as well as relaxed. It is this unpretentious elegance that sets this look apart. It’s about reserved sophistication.
  • To translate this style into kitchen settings, designers can start by studying early 20th century reference volumes. In addition, they can look to a recently designed collection of furniture by Thomasville Furniture called “The Bogart Collection,” an entire collection of Art Deco furniture fashioned on Humphrey Bogart’s cinema image.
    Additionally, specific materials and applications can help to create the cool, calm, collected, effortlessly elegant and highly individualist setting that defines this look. To plan a setting owing a clear debt to Art Deco, consider the following design guidelines:

Shapes and Forms

  • Very dramatic curved shapes are a key part of Art Deco furniture and should be part of the design’s cabinetry details. This type of curved shaped can be employed at mantle hood brackets, countertop overhang support members, shaped island ends, separate breakfront or sideboard furniture pieces. The furniture shape can also be introduced in a dining table and chairs in the kitchen.
  • Geometrically shaped pyramid-type columns, pilasters or stacked cabinet shapes are used. This design detail can be proportioned with tightly stepped changes in metal pieces, or much bolder dimensions in furniture pieces.


  • Tightly grained solid woods or veneers should be specified. Within veneers, burled patterns or “sketch-faced,” diamond-shaped veneer patterns can be showcased on key decorative doors to build-out the drama of the composition.
  • Wood finishes will not be matte! Because of the influence of lacquer finishes in the original style whether cherry, mahogany, rosewood or other rich and elegant veneers are used. There should always be a gloss patina to the finish.
  • Inlays in straight details or geometrically shaped repetitive diamonds are excellent door style details, and are also appropriate for countertop edging or island back treatments.
  • Rich chocolate leather can be used as an accent finish, perhaps in the hardware featured on the cabinetry.
  • Gleaming chrome in cabinetry leg termination points, hardware throughout the space, railings or detailing, as well as light fixtures, are appropriate. Using silverleaf as an accent on edging or as a “tipping” glaze on molding is very effective.
  • Stainless steel works exceedingly well in Art Deco settings. Black Absolute granite or Carrara marble stones add to the room. Creamy Travertine and limestone tones work equally well.

On the Surface

  • Art Deco styles use rich, vibrant hues somewhat reminiscent from the sets designed for Ballets Russes in the 1920s. Dark, rich shades of brown, purple, black and taupe are gracefully combined with creamy tones of a beige leather.
  • Glass is always appropriate. For the adventuresome, ivory Mother of Pearl and silver may be used. The material can embellish handles, feet or moldings, or can be used as an inlay. This brings a sense of unique timelessness and extreme elegance to the form.

    As you consider recreating the sense of style from these rooms of the 1920s into the 1940s, be aware that actual Art Deco interiors can be interpreted into three board categories.

  • There are always those clients interested in authentic Art Deco interiors.
  • Other private collectors appreciate Art Deco furniture and objects, and mix them freely with more rusticated materials, classic European crisp Contemporary settings.
  • Lastly (and I believe the most useful for kitchen designers), some clients will find pleasure in a kitchen “warmed up” by the shapes, materials and intricate patterns that are signatures of Art Deco styling.

Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, is a well-known author, designer, speaker and marketing specialist. A member of the NKBA Hall of Fame, Cheever gained prominence in the industry early on as the author of two textbooks in the area of design education. She manages an award-winning design firm, Ellen Cheever & Associates, and has been part of the management team of several major cabinet companies. She is a volunteer on NKBA’s Ad Hoc International Affiliations Committee and Ad Hoc Planning Guidelines Committee. Cheever’s article is part of a special, ongoing series, “Kitchens of the New Millennium,” appearing exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Over the course of 2003, Cheever will be leading the Kitchen & Bath Design News-sponsored “Designing for Profit” series of seminars, which will explore new ways for designers to use their creativity to design kitchens and baths that are not just beautiful, but also highly  profitable.

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