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Magazine    March 2001

Shanghai Jazz

Flash back to the Roaring Twenties, an era in America defined by an explosive cultural upheaval and a renewed prosperity. Across the globe in the Far East, a similar revolution was taking place in Shanghai, which was quickly earning its reputation among socialites, artists and fashion types as the “Paris of the East.”

As supper clubs sprouted up in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and American fashion underwent a revolution, with women discarding their petticoats and buns in favor of flapper dresses, finger waves and chic bobs a la Louise Brooks, Chinese author Mao Dun describes in his novel Midnight: A Romance of China 1930 the symbolic luxuries, such as cigars, guns, perfume, high heels, beauty parlors, Parisian summer dresses and flannel suits, that were immediately embraced by Shanghai’s high society as the cosmopolitan city became a bustling hotbed of industry and commercial prosperity.

The fusion of western glamour and style with more traditional Chinese values is readily apparent in the furniture and in the commercial art that was produced between the 1920s and the 1940s. Detailed colorful posters advertising an array of desirable commodities such as cigarettes, then thought to be the true mark of a sophisticate, featured the most beautiful models in China during that period dressed in alluring silk gowns with shoulders draped in the softest fur—emulating the fashion of the West.

In the areas of architecture and design, theaters, hotels and apartment buildings began reflecting a distinctly modern, or modeng, twist on traditional Chinese style. Single-family flats, in Art Deco buildings between four and twenty stories, provided an alternative to multifamily lane dwellings. The sleek, stylized elements that made up the defining aspects of Art Deco architecture were translated into a new strain of furniture that incorporated the Deco aesthetic with uniquely Chinese characteristics.

Curves became more prominent in the wood furniture that was made in the urban centers of China’s Shanghai and Canton provinces in the 1930s. Cabinets, for example, had rounded corners, and Deco flourishes took the place of Chinese or classical details. Chair and even table legs tended to be more splayed instead of straight up and down.

One of the largest collections of Shanghai Deco furniture outside of Asia is at the Kim3 galleries in California. Kim Mascheroni-Kieler has found blackwood dining sets, sofa and chair ensembles, cabinets, tables and beds that were made between about 1912 and 1949 and are in pristine condition. Kim3 also has a number of commercial posters, which resemble a genre of fashion photography from an era long gone.

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