I once worked in New York City's Rockefeller Center, where I spent many happy lunch hours studying its streamlined Art Deco architecture. I discovered sculpted panels by artists ranging from Gaston Lachaise to Isamu Noguchi and was amazed at the way the buildings used new materials like Bakelite and aluminum. Art Deco, I learned, was the first truly international style of interior design, and it swept through fashionable rooms from Paris to Tokyo from the mid-1920s to the 1940s.
Those decades coincided with Argentina's golden age. Such vast quantities of beef and grain were shipped from the port of Buenos Aires that money flowed in like the tide. Famous architects and designers, including Le Corbusier and Jean-Michel Frank, worked there. And affluent porteños, as residents of the city are called, brought roomfuls of fashionable furniture home from Europe. So when a decorator friend returned from South America with news that Buenos Aires is a great place to find Art Deco furniture at bargain pricesa result of the country's 2001 financial crisisI decided to see for myself.
Now undergoing a post-crash renaissance, but still full of excellent bargains, the Argentinean capital is attracting ambitious, creative people like Emmanuel Burgio, a young Frenchman who was once a banker at Credit Suisse First Boston in Manhattan. In 2002 Burgio launched Blue Parallel, which tailors itineraries to South America's most exotic locales for individual clients. He fell in love with Buenos Aires during his own travels and decided to base his company there. (Blue Parallel also has an office in Potomac, Maryland.)
Though he specializes in luxury outdoor adventures to places like Machu Picchu and Patagonia, Burgio didn't skip a beat when I asked him to plan my Argentinean vacation around antiquing. Within hours, he e-mailed a comprehensive list of shops and arranged for Yvonne Videla, a personal shopper for guests at Buenos Aires's posh Alvear Palace Hotel, to be my guide.
Videla and I hit the ground running. A driver whisked us in 10 minutes from the Alvear to the city's oldest neighborhood, San Telmo, where cobblestoned streets are home to dozens of antiques shops. Along the way, Videla offered acerbic opinions about everything from the best vineyards for Argentina's cherished red wine, Malbec (Altos Las Hormigas), to cosmetic surgery (many women of a certain age in the wealthy Recoleta section look eerily alike because they use the same doctor).
As we drove, I could see why Buenos Aires is often called the Paris of South America. Although the metropolis sprawls over 75 square miles, the center of the city is a charming series of neighborhoods linked by wide boulevards and landscaped parks and plazas. There was traffic and frenetic street life, but there were also purple-flowering jacaranda trees and handsome, fin de siècle buildings.
"During the '30s and '40s, when we were fantastically rich, there were both lots of imports and a tremendous amount of furniture manufacturing here," explained Claudio Caruso, owner of Gropius, as he showed me around his store. Here, Deco pieces sit near examples of Art Nouveau, which preceded the Art Deco era, and of Bauhaus, which followed it.
While I gazed at a 1930s mirrored vanity, its drawer fronts bowed into perfect half circles, with lustrous silver drawer pulls, I imagined Evita Perón seated before it, admiring her reflection. This piece, Caruso said, was made locally in the style of Art Deco master Jacques-Emile Ruhlman. At around $650, it's a stealmaybe even a third of what I'd pay in New York.
We headed next to Guevara Gallery, where Luis Guevara has one of the city's largest troves of Deco antiques. His shop is stuffed with desks, tables, armoires and torchères designed by the likes of René Jules Lalique and Josef Hoffmann. It's as if the staterooms on the SS Normandie, France's incomparable 1935 ocean liner, had been emptied and the contents stored here.
Guevara showed us two Maurice Dufrène pieces, typical of those he designed for the 1925 Paris exhibition that launched Art Deco: an enormous French walnut cabinet ($35,000) and a pair of mahogany end tables with wood so polished it looks lacquered ($800 each).
Today the descendants of the rich porteños who imported such pieces are once again collecting them. "I have maybe 20 clients at the Kavanagh who are trying to restore their apartments' original decor," Guevara said. The 1935 Kavanagh Buildingdesigned by architects Gregorio Sánchez, Ernesto Lagos and Luis Maria de la Torre and considered South America's first concrete high-riseis one of several projects in Buenos Aires for which Jean-Michel Frank did the interiors. Guevara's customers are searching for Frank originals, as well as pieces that use the designer's favorite materials: leather, vellum, marble, precious woods, bronze and copper.
That modern-day collectors would want to live with Art Deco hardly surprises Rodrigo Sens, manager of H.B. Antiques. "The style is what I sometimes call 'comfortably antique,'" he said. H.B., in business since 1975, is well stocked with Art Deco flatware (a 130-piece set of silver plate was $2,800), as well as pairs of low-slung club chairs in the manner of Ruhlman, their arms covered in a walnut-root veneer and the seats in black velvet.
At La Pasionaria, the inventory ranges from spherical light fixtures rescued from Art Deco-style municipal buildings to Eileen Gray love seats, with leather cushions held aloft by chrome tubes that curve in a perfect arc from the piece's back to the floor ($950). "The look is very concrete, with hard lines," owner Pancho Salomòn told me. "Art Deco is like an army recruiting poster; there is something almost preachy about it."
I see what he means. "The future is now," this style once proclaimed; somehow, it still does.
Of course, there's much more to do in Buenos Aires than shop for Art Deco pieces. During this period of economic recovery, Argentineans are rediscovering and building on their country's resources and traditions. They're traveling abroad less and learning more about native handicrafts. At Arte Étnico Argentino, owner Ricardo Paz displays rugs that were woven on upright looms in earth tones of rust, sage and brown ($87 a square yard) and hand-hewn wooden chairs that are lyrical in the no-frills simplicity of their construction (from $237 each). And at Laura O., named for Laura Orcoyen, one of the city's hottest interior decorators, I admired the monastic simplicity of her boxy wooden sofas and chairs, their cushions slipcovered in white denim. What keeps these pieces from being cold are details like crocheted edging on pillows ($45 each).
After four busy days of shopping and sightseeing in Buenos Aires, I was ready to fly back home. Although many Argentinean businesses are accustomed to shipping large pieces (including, if you please, polo ponies) to the States, my purchases were snug in my carry-on bag: two small still lifes of produceasparagus, artichokes, Bermuda onionspainted in 1939 with great verve and sophistication, that I'd bought for $75. I adore them because they prove that at the height of Art Deco's popularity, everythingeven the humblest of vegetablescould be made to look suave.
Stephen Henderson is based in New York City and has written for Elle Decor and the New York Times.