Celebrating the Bay Area’s Art Deco scene, one building at a time

Mirrored and balanced. Angular and geometric. Shimmering and opulent. The Art Deco aesthetic, which flourished in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, is as striking as it is beautiful. No wonder The Art Deco Society of California is working to preserve the period’s architecture here in the Bay Area — and celebrating its music, dress and culture, too. (Read on to learn more about their fabulous, Great Gatsby-themed summer picnic!)

Serafina Miller has been involved with the Art Deco Society for 24 years. She’s currently serving as the group’s interim president. Amos White joined the board in 2021. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Q. Why do you think saving Art Deco buildings in the Bay Area is important?

SM. My elevator pitch for what we do: We preserve really beautiful spaces so we can throw amazing parties in them!

We appreciate the visual diversity that a city maintains by holding on to Art Deco buildings. It’s about small details. I live in a 1933 San Francisco flat that was built by the grandmother from whom I bought it. It was pretty much original when I came in. The ceiling molding is still there. The doors are still dark, natural wood. There are certain design elements that just can’t be replicated today. And I think it’d be a shame to lose them. It keeps neighborhoods interesting. And it helps preserve history.

AW. I would emphasize how modern this aesthetic was — its subtle futurism, its break from the pastoral themes of the past. Artists, designers, architects and engineers were really trying to project forward into the future.

Q. I know the Art Deco Society is also an educational organization. Can you talk about that aspect?

AW. Art Deco used gold and things that gleam. It wasn’t pedantic or pedestrian. But it also wasn’t necessarily reality! Literature and films showed the glitter of the moment, though that wasn’t literally representative of society at the time.

It’s been eye opening to watch the Art Deco Society acknowledge its whiteness and start bringing in more diverse speakers as part of its programming. We all love Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but what was the world like from their point of view? What about Langston Hughes and Harlem Renaissance poets like Countee Cullen? How can we educate people on those diverse perspectives?

SM. We recently hosted a lecture on Chinese artists working in Hollywood during these decades. We also had a speaker present on how to dress for our Gatsby picnic: shopping for vintage dresses, making modern dresses look old with styling and accessories. This year, we made sure the example pictures we brought forward were of a more diverse group of people. These stories have always existed, but they haven’t always been accessible.

Q. Tell us more about that picnic!

SM. The Gatsby Summer Afternoon is always in September, at the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate in Oakland. Everyone who attends is dressed in period picnic attire. There’s a dance floor and a bandstand, automobiles from between the wars and elaborate picnics with tents, couches, chairs, rugs and silver.

We’d love to return to our walking tours, where we go into neighborhoods and talk about buildings. And I’d be remiss not to mention that we’ve brought back Deco Drinks. All of these events are open to the public!

Q. Until tours return (and until next summer’s picnic!): Where should the curious reader go to see some Bay Area Art Deco in action?

AW. Just explore! The Bay Area has its own flair. I live in Alameda, the birthplace and home to the Bruton sisters —  they were prolific artists of the period.

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