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Genista’s love of Art Deco prompts new guide

PUBLISHED: 12:30 04 November 2015

Genista Davidson

Genista Davidson

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She dresses in art deco fashions, lives surrounded by art deco furniture and furnishings and seeks out art deco architecture across the world. Now Norfolk’s Art Deco Traveller has created a guidebook to the era she loves, and lives, writes ROWAN MANTELL

The council chamber inside Norwich's art deco City HallThe council chamber inside Norwich's art deco City Hall

As a little girl Genista Davidson loved dressing up in her grandmother’s clothes. Draped in elegant 1920s dresses, with lacy gloves, grown-up shoes and a hat, she would imagine she lived not on a rural smallholding but in a sleekly curved white-and-glass mansion.

Four decades later, she is wearing a hand-made 1930s-style knitted dress with an original 1930s cream and black beret and black Bakelite belt, black leather shoes bought from a Norwich theatre costume department, a 1930s handbag from a Watton charity shop, plus art deco silver and jet earrings which once belonged to her grandmother.

Genista (it is the horticultural name for the broom plant; her mother loved gardening) adores all things art deco so much that every day is for dressing up in the glamorous styles of the interwar years. And while her home in Ashill, near Swaffham, is a 19th-century cottage, inside it is a treasure trove of 1920s and 1930s furniture, pictures, ornaments and crockery. Her wardrobe is full of vintage clothes and her knitted bathing costumes alone fill an ottoman chest. She had the costumes specially knitted to swim in 1930s lidos around the country, because Genista does not just love art deco, she lives it.

“It is the only movement that goes across all the genres. It can be a building, it can be a sofa, it can be an earring, it can be a swimming pool, it can be a light fitting,” she said.

The front cover of Genista Davidson's bookThe front cover of Genista Davidson's book

The movement takes in the boom of the 1920s and the bust of the 1930s. It spans fine art to film, the fashion of flapper girls to the architecture of early skyscrapers and the design of everything from jewellery to ocean liners.

“You really can’t define art deco in a sentence,” said Genista. “It means different things to different people. I could talk to you about art deco for about five hours and you would still not have a definite idea of what art deco is, but it is the style of the 1920s and 1930s.”

And while Genista is aware 
that life during the interwar years was far from glamorous for many, (“I have been accused of wearing rose-coloured spectacles!” said the woman who would actually only wear art deco frames) she particularly loves the confident elegance of the style – in everything from architecture to etiquette.

“People were recovering from one world war and heading into another. But there was also huge progress in the emancipation of women, and the new architecture was like nothing that had been seen before,” she said

Genista DavidsonGenista Davidson

“Wherever I go, I always seek out art deco hotels or guesthouses, cinemas, restaurants and lidos. It’s a bit of escapism. There are so many horrific things happening in the world, so much sadness, this, to me, is an escape.”

For years she looked for a book which would lead her to the best examples of art deco wherever she was travelling, around Britain and abroad. Eventually she realised it did not exist and two years ago she decided to write it.

Styling herself the Art Deco Traveller, she journeys through a world of original art deco, and art deco-style (“I’m not a purist!” she said) dressed, every day in her art deco Sunday best.

Her first book, Art Deco Traveller, A Guidebook to Britain, is published this week.

Art Deco Europe follows in the spring, and then art deco guides to United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand and eventually the rest of the world.

It’s a big subject, and a beautiful one too. Genista has travelled the world, from seaside villas in Norfolk to the hotels of Miami and an entire New Zealand town rebuilt after an earthquake, seeking out the sweeping lines, polished interiors, high contrast colours, geometric patterns and sunburst motifs of art deco.

In Britain her favourite buildings include Claridges in London, the Burgh Island hotel in Devon and the Midland Hotel in Morecambe. But she said an art deco lifestyle does not have to be prohibitively expensive. The Premier Inn in Bournemouth is also an art deco masterpiece. Or visitors can enjoy a coffee at the glitziest of the hotels, before seeking out a 1930s cinema or lido.

“I recently went for breakfast at Claridges and was sitting opposite a princess. You haven’t got to stay the night. But you must use the loos, they have these beautiful lamps!” said Genista.

In Norfolk she is passionate about the seaside villas of Hunstanton, the Majestic Cinema in King’s Lynn and the Regal in Cromer. Other art deco favourites are Norwich City Hall, the interiors of The Control Tower bed and breakfast at Egmere, near Wells, and of St Giles Hotel, Norwich, and the 1930s pharmacy shop in the Bridewell Museum, Norwich. She also loves Norwich Royal Arcade, which she describe as “art noveau, going into art deco.”

“I have travelled extensively, but I always come back to Norfolk,” she said. And as she always kept a diary, she had plenty of material for the books for which she has spent decades searching.

They are a joint project, with words by Genista and photographs and illustrations by both herself and her husband, Richard. He lives surrounded by her art deco passion, but is much less likely to appear in period costume.

“Twenty years ago people would think I was a little bit alternative, but now it’s acceptable,” said Genista. “I have never owned or worn a pair of jeans and I rarely go out without stockings, gloves and a hat. I have hundreds of pairs of gloves!”

She trained as a nurse, studied art history with the Open University, has taught in Spain and for the past five years has run the Dereham Big C shop. “We had lots of 1970s clothes in, but hardly any 1930s,” she said. However, she is a keen customer of the county’s charity and vintage shops, as well as commissioning reproduction clothes.

And at home she throws 1930s-style cocktail parties where friends eat and drink from art deco crockery and glasses, in rooms packed with period furniture and furnishings.

“I want people to get as much enjoyment out of it as I have,” said Genista.

She and Richard have grown-up children, and grandchildren too. The passion which began when she was a little girl herself, with a dressing-up box full of her grandmother’s clothes, has taken her all over the world and taken over her life.

And finally, she has the books she has been searching for. The Art Deco Traveller books are region-by-region guides to a whole world of elegantly curved architecture, geometric designs, and accommodation, restaurants, bars, lidos and places of interest for travellers to a past era.

“It’s our heritage, and there are so many buildings which have been lost,” said Genista. “I want people to be inspired.”

Art Deco Traveller, A Guide to Britain, by Genista Davidson, £9.99, is published this week by Art Deco Publisher, and available from shops including Jarrold’s and from www.artdeco-traveller.co.uk

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