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24 San Diego Uptown News | March 4-17, 2011


HOME IMPROVEMENT If this door could talk


Originally hailing from Paris in the 1920s, Art Deco designs still grace the faces of homes across the world—and here in San Diego


An air of mystery surrounds


Art Deco, that design style from the late 1920s that combined ancient Egyptian symbology with images of a fantastic future. Many a perfectly fine idea has


The “all seeing eye.” (Michael Good/SDUN)


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March. Expires: 03/31/11


been quashed by bad timing. Take that jaunt I had planned to the Pyramids—for February 2011. Or Art Deco, the design trend intro- duced to much fanfare in Paris in 1925. After gradually infiltrating the America home in the late 1920s with lighting, furniture, jewelry and household items, Art Deco seemed poised to make a lasting impres- sion on neighborhoods across the U.S. when the Stock Market crashed and new homebuilding ground to a halt. San Diego’s streetcar suburbs might today be surrounded by neighborhoods of sleek little Art Deco fantasies. Instead we have austere little ranch-style tract homes, a few big Art Deco ziggurats like the County Administration building, and a load of streamlined toast- ers gathering dust in antique stores.


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Art Deco was a power- ful force in American design. It captured the gung-ho ambitions of the late 1920s, with an assortment of design motifs borrowed from the fascinations of the day—Egyptian, Aztec and Native American iconography, cubism, modernism and futurism, zigzags and arrows, lighting bolts and pyramids, ancient hieroglyphs and inscrutable symbols. Art Deco fed America’s obsession with speed and machinery. It combined futuristic shapes with a romanticized vision of antiquity. It was the perfect design style for the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was shaped by “all the nervous energy stored up and expended in the War.” In 1922, archeologist Howard


Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb. Americans immediately became obsessed with all things Egyptian. The frenzy was some-


HouseCalls Michael Good


what justified—Tutankhamen’s tomb was the best-preserved ex- ample yet discovered, and the in- tense colors, intricate shapes and undeniable power of the objects


If a door—or speakeasy—is Art Deco, the inside of the house was once Art Deco too. (Michael Good/SDUN)


were inspiring, particularly to the world’s industrial designers, who were suddenly being called upon to ornament millions of shiny, new, machine-made objects. The 1925 Exposition Internationale des Art Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes was intended to show off all that new design, particu- larly by the French, of course. Herbert Hoover, who was Sec- retary of Commerce at the time, was dubious about the whole affair, and forbade Americans from participating on the principal that no contemporary architec- ture was “new” enough. He did, however, put together a delega-


tion from the American Institute of Architecture, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New York Times. They, in turn, came back to America full of zeal about this new style of design. (Art Deco eventu- ally got its revenge on Hoover, when his dam on the Colorado was built in the style.) Art Deco is misunderstood today, and for good rea- son. Other design move- ments had a philosophy, or some kind of organiz- ing principal, but Art Deco is a hodgepodge of trends and influenc- es. It can take the form of applied decoration, rather than something intrinsic to the object. Which makes it easy to ignore. And remove. Many homeown- ers and historians have done just that. As part of that inevitable process of attrition, Art Deco light fixtures and hardware, paint and plaster effects, switch plates and Bakelite knobs, furniture and fix- tures, tile and tubs and tables have disappeared from most 1920s San Diego homes. When one Art Deco element gets discovered by a new homeowner—and sometimes even by an historic expert—it’s dismissed as a later addition, or, at best, an anomaly. But Art Deco was a vital part of many late 1920s houses, particularly homes built in the Spanish Revival style—although I feel


a bit like Moses in the wilder- ness saying that. If only some- one would discover a hermeti- cally sealed Art Deco showcase, a 1930’s version of King Tut’s tomb. Wouldn’t that put the Art Deco naysayers to rest?


Marlene Pullman approached me at the recent Mission Hills Heritage winter lecture, where I had been rambling about trees and wood for the last half hour. She had an unusual front door, which needed some attention, and she wondered if I could come by and offer some advice. A few days later we stood in front of the door in question. Marlene’s house is in the Spanish Revival style, and her door flies in the face of convention. Most would expect a massive, rustic paneled oak door that looks like it came from a farmhouse in Spain, rather than this simple, flat slab with an intricate Art Deco design burned into the Philippine mahogany veneer. In fact, some historians have questioned whether these Art Deco pyrographic doors (yes, there are others) really belong on a 1929 Spanish Revival house. Marlene, however, didn’t wonder if her door was original, since she knew it had always been there. She’d played in the house as a child (she grew up next door), and when the original owners moved in the 1930s, her mother bought the place. Marlene had lived there ever since. When we went inside, the


see Door, page 25


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