Owning art deco: Bring Tulsa’s rich design history into your home

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Oxford is known for its Gothic Revival architecture. Tel Aviv stands out for its Bauhaus constructions. If you visit Budapest, you’ll be met with some of the best examples of art nouveau design in existence.

But what puts Tulsa on par with these major world cities? Art deco.

Tulsa is world-renowned for its art deco architecture. Conceived in Paris in 1925 and realized in the United States in the ‘30s, art deco, also called art moderne, is an architectural style known for its emphasis on elegant and sleek designs signifying wealth, status and sophistication.

While the best of Tulsa’s classic art deco constructions can be seen at places such as Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, Will Rogers High School and the Oklahoma Natural Gas Building, experts say some elements of art deco — clean lines, geometric shapes, rich colors — are reemerging in modern interior home design.

“I think people like art deco because it bridges contemporary and classical styles,” William Franklin, founder of Decopolis, Tulsa’s art deco museum, said. “It can be very simple and geometric or very ornate at the same time. One of the most fascinating things is when I find (art deco) stuff that was made almost 100 years ago but it still looks like it could be in a modern art gallery today.”

Origins of art deco

After the culmination of World War I, French artists and designers ushered in the art deco movement by forming the Societé des Artistes Décorateurs (the Society of Decorative Artists).

Their goal was to place visual artists and designers on equal footing with the highly esteemed sculptors and painters of the day while shedding classical architecture they deemed passé in favor of futuristic styles. Many of their designs drew from Egyptian, Greek and South American culture, which gave art deco a worldly and sophisticated feel.

“It matched up in this perfect time in history where designers were trying to move themselves to the forefront and do something that was on the same level as art,” Shane Hood, lead designer at W Design, said.

An appreciation for modern technologies and machinery that could be used to mass produce items and incorporate new materials heavily influenced art deco designs. These innovations also made the style available to people all around the globe.

“Design took a sharp turn — it started the movement toward more simple lines, and it became more accessible to everyone,” Mary Lee Torbert of MLT Design said.

American designers took inspiration from the art deco movement they witnessed in Europe and eventually introduced their iterations of the style in major cities such as New York City and Chicago. For Americans, art deco went hand in hand with the notions of success and technological advancement, which they were eager to demonstrate in the post-war era.

Art deco took hold in Tulsa in tandem with the oil boom of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s as businessmen migrated from the East Coast in hopes of striking black gold.

“We were just a little cow town like any other in the area, and then we had all this money and wealth,” Franklin said. “The people who lived here wanted to be perceived as being sophisticated and modern, so they embraced this style that symbolized that — we’re not just a cow town; we’re a place to come to build your business.”

Tulsans who had never experienced this level of wealth before used art deco to signify their status. They incorporated things like gilded metals, ornate wallpapers and zigzag tile not just in public structures but in their own homes.

“There was an importance in making our city beautiful,” Hood said. “When we would build public buildings, we spent money on them so that they were impressive. Then that kind of trickled down into people’s homes. Of course the oil barons and the magnates — their homes were beautiful, big and stylish. But even the homes that were built for the workers or middle class had that, as well.”

Blending elements of art deco in your own home may be easier than most think it would be, Hood said.

“I think there’s ways to incorporate art deco into every style of home,” Hood said. “It’s really easy to have a home that was built in the ‘80s or ‘90s or today and still be able to introduce art deco design into your overall aesthetic.”

Torbert said a simple way to bring art deco into your interior design is through the addition of a few eye-catching features.

“You usually want to focus on one or two items and set it up so that it’s a statement piece,” Torbert said. “That might be a light feature; it might be a piece of furniture; it might even be a rug design — but you don’t want to get lost in the clutter. You want to be able to see all the elements.”

If you don’t want to commit to a large piece of art deco furniture, like a jewel-toned couch or a velvet armchair, then small embellishments are the way to go, Hood said.

“The easiest way to do it is through accessories,” Hood said. “The actual architecture doesn’t need to be art deco to have an entryway table with a beautiful vase, or even a jewelry table itself as an art deco piece. You can use mirrors to reflect light to create that dynamic space; there’s even great wallpaper companies that are doing deco patterns — repetitive geometric and natural patterns.”

Rather than committing your whole home to the art deco style, you can easily transform a small space or room in a way that acknowledges the form without being too decadent, Torbert said. A way to do this is by incorporating a bold jewel tone or a darker hue in one concentrated area.

“A lot of people are doing it in their powder bathrooms — it makes the room look really nice that’s not overwhelming for the whole home,” Torbert said. “And sometimes you can just do an accent wall; you could get a really pretty lamp, a mirror or a piece of artwork — something that incorporates the colors of art deco. Wallpaper is also starting to creep back into our lexicon, and there are some wonderful patterns that can be considered art deco.”

Torbert said it’s best to mix vintage art deco pieces with modern elements. Vintage art deco items can be found almost anywhere — vintage stores, Ebay, Facebook Marketplace, estate and garage sales — while newer takes on deco are often offered at popular stores such as Target and Restoration Hardware.

“If you mix styles, it can be so interesting — I don’t think everything needs to be brand new,” Torbert said. “You can even take an older chair and have it reupholstered with an art deco fabric that’s unexpected.”

It’s important to remember and pay homage to art deco because it’s inextricably linked to the history and lore of Tulsa, Franklin said.

“That time was our golden age,” he said. “You don’t get tired of those stories — they’re rehashed over and over, generation after generation, with a new twist. That era — the oil barons, the gangsters, the flappers — was our myths and legends that we can use over and over again in the future and that we can take advantage of. They’re ours.”

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