ART DECO MIRRORS
Mirrors - from hand-held ones to large decorative wall styles - provided art deco designers with an ideal opportunity to indulge their love
of all things shiny, colourful and new.
There were few materials that suited the self-consciously modern spirit of art deco better than the clean, functional shape and smooth, shiny surfaces of mirror glass. In the 1920s and 1930s, mirrors were increasingly seen as part of an overall interior design, used to create effects of light and space rather than just for looking into.
New types of glass, such as vitroflex and vitrolite, were developed. These could be moulded over furniture or architectural details, and several contemporary designers, such as Louis Sue, covered whole rooms - usually bathrooms - in the new materials and in lightly silvered plate glass.
Old techniques for painting on, colouring, etching and engraving glass were revived, and new materials were used for frames. Cork, shagreen (a type of rough leather made from horse hide), wrought iron, rolled cellophane and lacquered wood were all used.
The new look applied equally to wall mirrors, free-standing table-top vanity mirrors and hand mirrors. Mirrors in chromed frames were
shaped to echo motifs in the furniture or architecture of a room. Strip lighting was sometimes built into the frames, especially in bathroom mirrors used for shaving.
Top designers created wall mirrors that made great use of coloured glass, and
mass produced mirrors followed their example. The most popular colour was peach, produced by adding salts of gold, magnesium and cadmium to the glass mixture. Blue, from cobalt, and green, from iron, were also used.
FANS AND SUNRISES
Typical deco mirrors were rarely rectangular. Simple circles, octagons and ellipses were the most popular shapes, though more fanciful ones, such as fans and sunrises, could be made by fitting together several pieces of glass and screwing them to a backboard of stained plywood. The screw heads were disguised by being covered with chrome knobs or pieces of crystal. The best mirrors incorporated these into the design, usually as the centre of a stylized flower.
Mirrors in the art deco style were so much an expression of the taste of the 1930s that they fell out of favour soon after, and have never really been back in fashion since.
Unusual shapes and tinted and engraved glass made 1930s mirrors much more than a sop to vanity or an aid to dressing. They became important decorative items in their own right and were to be found in all fashionable homes. Peach was the most popular tint for mirror glass.
As usual with deco items, designer pieces are rare and expensive. Mass-produced wall mirrors, though, are not widely collected. You might find some of the better, more elaborate examples with specialist deco dealers, but there are bargains to be had in junk shops, second-hand furniture stores, and even jumble sales.
Look out particularly for mirrors where the glass has been worked to create decorative effects. Simple designs were etched on the back of the glass before it was silvered. Etching with hydrofluoric acid gave a frosted look, and could be used to create finely detailed work or a simple motif; six-petalled flowers and stylized foliage were typical.
Patterns - usually bold geometric designs engraved with a cutting wheel were much sharper. Sand-blasting was used to give glass a finely pitted, weathered look, while the mirror edges were often brilliant-cut or faceted to catch and scatter the light. Look out, too, for mirrors incorporating a clock, the face of which was invariably wheel-cut.
MIRRORS ON STANDS
Shaving mirrors and vanity mirrors were not generally decorated, but expressed the deco style in the shaping of the glass and in the simple elegance of their metal swivel stands, usually made of chromed brass or, later, chromed steel. These are not easy to find today in their original condition; successive fashions have led to their chrome being stripped off, or painted over.
With care, you can remove paint from chromed frames with a proprietary
paint stripper. However, if the silvering on the back of a mirror is damaged, it can only be restored professionally. This can be more expensive than buying a cheaper mirror.
Once you've got them that way, mirrors are easy to keep in good condition. Soap and water will keep chrome and glass clean. Don't hang plywood-backed mirrors above radiators.