Modern Talking: How Art Deco Furniture Moved Into Bombay Homes

If you browse the furniture shops of Chor Bazaar or the city’s pricey antique stores, the one style of furniture you will find no dearth of is Art Deco. The 1930s is when the style arrived in India, capturing the imagination of early local architects who built Mumbai’s answer to Miami, a chain of art deco buildings on Marine Drive and across Oval Maidan. That’s also the time Art Deco furniture came into vogue among those who could afford it. Back then it was simply known as “modern”, said Abigail McGowan, associate professor of history at the University of Vermont in the US.

McGowan, a historian of the late colonial period in India, is currently researching home furnishing practices in Bombay and Ahmedabad from the early to the mid twentieth century. On Tuesday, June 14, McGowan will deliver a talk titled ‘Domestic Modern: Redecorating Homes in Bombay in the 1930s’ at the Godrej Hubble in Vikhroli. The event has been organised by Godrej Archives, one of the places McGowan is currently conducting research.

Godrej cupboard

An ad in ‘The Times of India’, 1926.

McGowan said that from around the late 1880s to the 1920s, the popular discourse around the home, which was carried out in women’s magazines and domestic manuals, hinged on how houses could be kept clean. Around the 1930s, the focus shifted to how one could style one’s home in a modern fashion. “The sleek Art Deco style was meant to bring the modern into the house,” McGowan said.

Army and Navy Stores

An ad from the journal of the Indian Institute of Architects, 1936.

Newspapers of the time were full of advertisements of furniture, household goods and furnishing fabric. McGowan will illustrate her talk with images of ads she found in papers such as The Times of India and journals published by the Indian Institute of Architects. She also found old product catalogues in the Godrej Archives and references to home décor in autobiographies of people living in the city at the time.

John Roberts furniture

An ad from ‘The Times of India’, 1934.

“You get a sense that a lot of stuff marketed was made here,” McGowan said. “But made with a sense of what global styles were. The furniture stores were pretty explicit that (what they were selling was) not just a foreign look.” Naturally the furniture promotions were aimed at the city’s elite, the only constituency that could afford to buy the stuff. McGowan said that a few of the stores that put out ads in the 1930s still exist, such as Kamdar in Churchgate, the Godrej showroom in Fort and The Bombay Store, which sold home furnishings in its earlier avatar as Bombay Swadeshi.

‘Domestic Modern: Redecorating Homes in Bombay in the 1930s’ will take place on Tuesday, June 14 at 4pm at Godrej Hubble, Plant 14, Godrej & Boyce, Vikhroli (East). Get directions here. There is no entry fee. For more information, see the Facebook event page.

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