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American Deco Divine

Since art deco began looking good again in the 1970's, the French, in that endearing French way, have convinced themselves and the world that they were solely responsible for it, that it was introduced in 1925 at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, and that French Art Deco is the most important Art Deco. They almost got away with it.

The British curators of "Art Deco: 1910-1939" were having none of that theory. This highly entertaining show, which originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last summer and recently began its American tour in San Francisco, manages to get beyond the clichés that are usually hauled out when Art Deco is the subject. Never before has the style been seen for the pandemic it was, leaping from continent to continent and flourishing in wildly different forms for three decades.

Art Deco was the design world's answer to jazz. A series of improvisations, it was one riff after another on the moods and themes of the early 20th century. The style began with outrageously luxurious bespoke items; as it matured, it grew leaner so that it could be mass-produced, yet it lost none of its thrill. Spreading Deco fast and far were the new media of its time: magazine photography and, especially, the movies. As the show says, "It was modern, and it was everywhere."

And how could anybody resist it?Most Art Deco was about as deep as disco music, serving no higher purpose than pleasure and escape. Mostly it was created around the world of the night. Looking back, you might think that for 30 years everybody had long fingers and narrow, pointy feet and awakened at sunset only to drink and smoke and stand at strange angles. This was a time when blue wasn't blue, it was eau de Nil.

World War II put an end to this taste for glamour, but what a record was left behind. Only the V&A would have the nerve to attempt to sort it out, much less keep the mood light. Although the show has its share of important furniture and scholarly labels, they're widely scattered among diamonds, evening dresses, film clips, photographs, slinky portraits of maharajahs, and one very large, sexy roadster—all with big bands swinging and chanteuses heaving their bosoms as you move between the displays. You'll wish you could buy the sound track. You can.

Which Art Deco is the best Art Deco is a question the show doesn't try to answer. The French certainly win the prize for craftsmanship, with their ivory microdots, shagreen panels, and maniacal inlays of crushed eggshell, but their obsession with luxury and matched suites of furniture can leave you gasping for air. British Art Deco is much friendlier but awfully horsey. The Italians and Swedes and Chinese and Indians certainly had their share of fun, but didn't really produce enough to call Deco their own.

It all came together best in the United States. The show saves us for last, culminating in a big production number that seems to say that we created not only more Art Deco but also its biggest and most enduring icons, in the skyline of Manhattan. Americans were especially susceptible to the themes of Deco: speed, technology, Hollywood fantasies, a preference for the future over the past, and the constitutional right of every stenographer to feel like an heiress. And of course we were grateful to have something new to manufacture and sell during the Depression. America manufactured and sold Art Deco like there was no tomorrow, at a time when it must have seemed there wasn't one.

How much Art Deco could there once have been for so much to have survived?This morning I visited eBay and searched for "Deco." There were 17,707 items for sale.

"Art Deco: 1910-1939" is on view through July 4 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (34th Ave. and Clement St.; 415/863-3330; www.famsf.org). From August 22 through January 9, 2005, it will be at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave.; 617/267-9300; www.mfa.org).

STEPHEN DRUCKER, a contributing writer at Architectural Digest, has been collecting Art Deco for 30 years.

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