Art deco began in France during the first world war and went on to accompany the age of jazz, Josephine Baker, cocktails, convertibles and talking pictures.
While art nouveau had been curvy and nature-inspired, art deco was symmetrical, layered, topped with pyramids, stepped forms and zigzag lines. It was celebrated at Paris’s Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925.
Unable to compete with the extravagant, steel-framed skyscrapers being constructed in the US, European cities developed their own style of streamlined building, with exotic facades combining art-deco geometry with national motifs. Art deco was fun, sophisticated, technological and modern. Inspired by cubism, futurism and the craze for all things ancient Egyptian that followed the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, it lent a colourful, dynamic look to urban architecture.
France was keen to demonstrate at the 1925 exhibition that it had recovered its glory and artistic prestige after the war. Two-thirds of the exhibits there were French, including many from Paris’s luxury department stores. Today, most of the shops have lost their celebrated art-deco facades, but there are still examples of the style in the capital: the centrepiece of the Jardins du Trocadéro is the Palais de Chaillot, built for the Exposition Universelle in 1937, and there is also the Palais de Tokyo, inaugurated the same year. Also worth seeing are the Grand Rex and Louxor cinemas, as well as the art deco Piscine Pontoise, where two tiers of blue-doored changing booths surround the pool, under a glass roof. The Museum of the 1930s in Boulogne-Billancourt, on Paris’s western edge has a great collection of art and design from the period.
Stay But only if you have exceptionally deep pockets … the Prince de Galles hotel near the Champs Elysées, has special art deco rooms (from €570 a night)
Lithuania’s second city is a surprising hotspot for art deco. During the 1920s and 30s, this was the country’s capital and rapid urban growth saw art deco, combined with traditional Baltic folk elements, produce a simplified yet characteristic version of the style. The Christ’s Resurrection Basilica (1932-40) was used as a storehouse by the Nazis and as a factory by Stalin before being finally consecrated in 2004. It’s as close to a skyscraper as a church can get. Kaunas’s central post office, the HQ of dairy company Pienocentras and the city’s 1936 Great War Museum are all solidly art deco. Kaunas is the first city in central and eastern European to be named a Unesco design city, for its inter-war architecture.
Stay: Hotel Metropolis (doubles from €36, breakfast €3), was built in early-20th-century “Lithuanian baroque” style. For an art-deco dinner, don’t miss Movido restaurant, part of a beautiful 1930s cinema, the Romuva
Spain had no direct involvement in the first world war and responded to global architectural influences in a different way from the rest of Europe. Modernist designs dominated Barcelona, and in Valencia art deco-inspired buildings continued an offbeat, highly individualistic tradition. Valencian architect Joan Guardiola’s Casa Judía (1930) in Calle Castellón is a mesmerising mix of Hollywood Cleopatra and downtown Aztec. Valencia was undergoing an economic boom in the 1920s and 30s, and art-deco influences can be seen all along Calles María Cristina and Sueca, in Plaza del Ayuntamiento, and in the city’s two 1930s cinemas: the Capitol and the Rialto. The Bombas Gens factory, an important example of industrial art deco, was gutted by fire in 2014 but is set to reopen in 2017 as an arts centre.
Stay The Vincci Palace hotel (doubles from €100, room only) has opulent art deco design in public areas and bedrooms.
Lisbon has some of the most stunning examples of art-deco architecture in Europe as well as some of its most neglected buildings. The best is Carlos Florêncio Dias and Cassiano Branco’s Teatro Eden on the Praça dos Restauradores, now the Orion Eden hotel. The Cais do Sodré station (1928) is another art-deco landmark, with its geometric layering, checkered stained glass and a piano keyboard marble floor. Awaiting redevelopment is the Parque Mayer, which opened in 1922 with carousels, a fairground, boxing ring and the Variedades and Capitólio cinemas. Other notable art-deco buildings include the National Statistics Institute and the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fátima.
Stay Branco-designed Hotel Britania has fabulously opulent lacquered cabinets, white marble floors and striped furniture (rooms from €159, room only).
Art deco is characterised by a huge variation in styles from 1920s zigzags, sunbursts and geometrical shapes to the streamlined chrome, neon and concrete of the 1930s. London has them all. The Hoover building in Perivale, west London, is perhaps the best-known art-deco building outside of New York. Broadcasting House in Portland Place, Palladium House on Great Marlborough Street, Senate House in Bloomsbury, the Carreras Cigarette Factory in Camden, the old Daily Telegraph and Daily Express buildings on Fleet Street, Battersea Power Station, Tooting Bec Lido, the Oxo tower and Hay’s Wharf are all variations on art deco. The massive expansion of suburbia between the wars, was accompanied by the spread of the Odeon cinema chain, with its art-deco foyers.
Stay Staff at the Wellesley hotel (doubles from £400, room only) in Knightsbridge wear 1920s costume.
The best examples of art deco are found underground. Sokolniki, Mayakovskaya and Aeroport metro stations opened in the 1930s as part of a dynamic Soviet plan to build the most astonishing (and fastest) metro system in the world. They are art deco-inspired palaces with colossal columns, friezes, mosaics, bas-relief, chandeliers, bronze statues and glossy marble floors. Above ground and determined to have its own version of the Empire State building, Moscow began building the Palace of the Soviets (Dvorets Sovetov) in 1937. Building was halted by the German invasion in 1941 and the structure was dismantled, but a decade later, work began on Moscow’s Seven Sisters skyscrapers (Vysotki). The city’s Art Deco Museum opened in Luzhnetskaya quay in 2014, with more than 1,000 sculptures, ocean liner artefacts and items of furniture.
Stay The St Regis Moscow Nikolskaya hotel (from £200 a night, room only) has a splendid art-deco lobby and swimming pool.
European art deco never matched the flamboyance of the American version but Amsterdam’s Tuschinski cinema comes close. It has a stunningly opulent foyer in autumnal shades, matching carpets and special lighting effects. Other art-deco cinemas in Amsterdam are the Rialto, The Movies and the former Ceintuur, which now houses CT Coffee and Coconuts. The southern De Pijp district has examples of the art deco- and expressionist-inspired brick architecture of the Amsterdam School, one of Europe’s most radical design centres in the 1920s. Other art deco-inspired buildings here include the De Bazel built in 1926 for the Dutch Trading Company, and the stadium built for the 1928 summer Olympics.
Stay The Banks Mansion hotel (doubles from €209, room only) has all the stained glass windows, geometric fabrics and elegant wooden furniture you could wish for. A 20-minute stroll along the Herengracht is Sauna Deco, which has the original art-deco stairs and gilded decorations from Paris’s Le Bon Marché department store.
Bucharest’s premier arts centre, the whitewashed ArCub, is one of the country’s finest art-deco buildings, with the trademark combination of elongated banner windows and steamship portholes. Bucharest was known as Little Paris for its cultural and cosmopolitan reputation, as well as having its own Arcul de Triumf. Oil and food exports brought great wealth to the city between the wars, and the period was characterised by the construction of many art-deco buildings, a style that symbolised this capitalist success. The 1934 Telephone Palace on Calea Victoriei was the first building with a steel structure in Romania. Art-deco apartment blocks, doors, gates, glass canopies, fountains and clocks can be seen all over the city. Amzei Square’s shops and the Judecătoria (courthouse) on Stirbei Voda are also in this style.
Stay The 1937-built Ambasador hotel (doubles from €75) is a landmark building in itself.
Germany was invited too late to prepare a pavilion for the 1925 Exposition International but by the 1937 exhibition, its entry was a triumphant, neo-classical monument, a block of three surging columns topped by an eagle on a swastika. It was the time of the autobahn and mass production of the Volkswagen, images of modernity that fitted in well with the looks and graphics of art deco. In Berlin, the Bröhan museum is dedicated to art nouveau and art deco. Elsewhere in the city, architect Erich Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus is an example of Streamline Moderne style, a late art-deco variant that emphasised curving forms made out of steel and rendered concrete. Other buildings to see in Berlin are the Delphi Filmpalast and the Renaissance theater on Knesebeckstraße, which opened in 1922 and claims to be Europe’s only art-deco theatre.
Stay The Ellington hotel (doubles from €120, room only), which hosts jazz concerts on Sundays.
It wasn’t until Queen Victoria started to spend her winters in Nice (with a staff of 100) that the seaside city took off as a holiday destination. By the early 1920s, it was Europe’s most glamorous resort and with La Victorine film studios ensuring that the Promenade des Anglais was always full of stars in furs and open-top cars. At the western end of the promenade, a giant art-deco war memorial was built into the rock face in 1928. Rues Déroulède, Rossini, Berlioz and Gambetta all have interesting art-deco buildings and Le Gloria mansions on rue de France is a six-storey residence with a mint-green marble atrium and rows of original brass letter-boxes.
Stay Nice’s most majestic art-deco treasure is the Palais de la Mediterranée (doubles from €295, room only). Funded by American millionaire Frank Jay Gould in 1929, it is the most spectacular example of art deco in Europe, with a white granite facade and bas-reliefs .