Devoted to Deco

Philadelphia Inquirer
Thursday, 1 October, 1992

In his previous life, Robert Aibel taught filmmaking at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania and collected early-American country furniture.

Then, in 1984, he bought a low-slung, split-level in Elkins Park and his world changed.

"There's no way to describe what happened to me," said Aibel, 41. "It was complete and sudden."

Within a year, deco, the jazzy, sleek design that sprang from Paris in the 1920s, had become his avocation and abiding passion.

Aibel began renovating and furnishing his home in near total deco dedication and resigned from Drexel. He has since become one of the region's leading deco dealers. His Moderne gallery, 111 N. Third St. in Old City, features finely crafted furniture from the high deco period, as well as deco light fixtures, glassware and an extensive design-book section.

For his own home, Aibel and his wife, Christine, have searched two continents over the last eight years. Some pieces are still missing. Deco sofas were so difficult to find for the living room that Aibel and his collaborator, interior designer Michael Gruber, have finally decided to build their own.

The result of the Aibels' meticulous treasure hunt is a collector's collection of fine deco pieces, fearlessly adapted to the practical demands of modern family life. Museum-quality pieces are mixed with contemporary pieces that show that deco influences are still pervasive.

The Aibel home draws largely on the high period of French deco that set the taste and style for glamour and elegance in American life in the 1930s. Walking into the entrance hall is a transporting experience to another time and place. The sleek gray and chrome entrance hall is luxuriously tranquil, conveying an elegant feeling of modernity with its ocean-liner-like curved walls, metal strip moldings, period glass chandelier and contemporary wall sconces.

The hall's centerpiece is a china closet console of burled elm mahogany, with handles of thick slices of ivory tusk - the real thing, before ivory harvesting was outlawed. The 1930s piece, designed by French deco master Louis Neiss, shows some of its age, but has not yet gone through the usual refinishing at the Moderne studios because Aibel said one goal for the house was "that it had to be livable. I love that buffet, but I'm not going to refinish it until the kids are about 15." (Sarah and Joshua are now 11 and 6.)

Adapting deco furniture to contemporary life was in some cases surprisingly easy. For the master bedroom, for instance, a circa-1930 French cozy - a sort of sofa with built-in headboard, bookshelves and tables - was turned into a modular unit for a queen-size bed. The mirrored, slide-out side tables are perfect for holding a drink while watching television in bed. The rosewood console is attributed by Aibel to the Majorelle Studio in Paris, and a corner curvilinear entertainment unit and curtain valances were built to match the bed.

One print from Aibel's collection of pochoir French hand-colored stencils became the design motif for the bedroom, and its pastel geometrics are echoed in silky drapery fabric.

The Aibels decided against an all-1930s kitchen, opting for a subzero freezer, microwave and other modern appliances. But they kept the spirit of deco alive with black and white tiles in an irregular geometric pattern and with black granite countertops. A collection of green Galloway pottery from the 1920s, '30s and '40s is displayed on top of floating shelves.

The dining room, however, gives total allegiance to deco. The table, six chairs and two side buffets are also by Neiss in satinwood and burled walnut, with buffets topped by streaky red, pink, gray and white marble.

Over the massive buffet, a cement architectural detail with typical deco motifs of elk, birds and waterfalls has been framed in wrought iron, repeating the iron used in the chandelier, lamp and mirror frame.

Aibel's love affair with deco was driven by selection of his circa-1951 house, which he and his wife settled on after viewing more than 100 others. The house's modern lines were unsuited to the country styles he collected. There were already several deco flourishes, particularly in the bathrooms with etched-glass shower doors and chrome trim, so the Aibels decided to go deco all the way.

A scholar by training and profession, Aibel began an exhaustive study of the subject. Serendipitously in 1984, he won a filmmaking fellowship to France, where he found himself in the heart of deco country.

Familiar primarily with mass-produced American furniture, he became enamored of the French early-20th-century one-of-a-kind pieces that were crafted with the skill of 18th-century cabinetmakers. But unlike the 18th- century styles of Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton that are dominant in American furniture, he found that "with deco, every piece was an innovation."

Within a year, he had bought 60 deco pieces in France and shipped them to Philadelphia, where he opened a warehouse, and began selling it.

Initially, most clients were from New York, and only 10 percent of his sales were to Philadelphians. But in the last five years, that has changed.

Philadelphians are now more intrigued by deco, accounting for 40 percent of his business. Moreover, he said, clients no longer are strictly deco collectors doing a whole house or room in the style.

"Deco has become another style - another choice from which you can choose," he said. Now more people find that one or two deco pieces can work well within a more eclectic room.

Many of his pieces are museum quality, and have prices to match, ranging from $1,000 for a chair or end table to $85,000 for a museum-quality, eight- piece bronze and rosewood dining set designed in 1935 by major deco designer Eugene Printz.