Seeking Art Deco perfection in Shanghai

To say that Mr Spencer Dodington, an entrepreneur, is passionate about Art Deco design is an understatement. He has devoted years to studying the style, amassed a vast collection of period furniture and started a business renovating pre-war apartments for expatriates.

So when he set out to buy and refurbish his own Art Deco home here, he settled for nothing less than perfection. After a two-year search that began in 2007, he finally found a place in Shanghai’s old French Concession that met his very specific criteria – an upper-level apartment in a building that still had some original details, as well as a balcony.

“There are only 80 Art Deco apartment blocks in Shanghai, so I’ve been to all of them,” said Mr Dodington, a 42-year-old Texas native, who also runs Luxury Concierge China, a company that gives personal tours of Shanghai and offers concierge services. “I had to commit in 15 minutes when I saw it. There were two other estate agents right outside and if I didn’t say, yes, then that was it.”

His goal after buying the 1,420-sq-ft apartment in the summer of 2009 was to return it to how it may have looked when the building was finished in 1928.

This required a good deal of detective work. First, Mr Dodington figured out who designed the building: Alexander Yaron, an architect who had emigrated to China from Russia in the early part of the 20th century. Then he visited two surviving Russian Orthodox churches, also designed by Yaron, to glean clues about his architectural style.

In addition, he wanted to inspect other apartments in his building, hoping to find one that still had some of its Art Deco detailing. He went door to door and finally charmed one of his neighbours into letting him examine her place.

It helps that he speaks the local dialect, Shanghainese, after living in the city for 16 years. “Shanghainese works every time,” Mr Dodington said. “They love that.”

Unlike his new place, which had undergone a “macabre” makeover, he said, with dark-wood furniture and fake Tiffany chandeliers, his neighbour’s apartment had barely been touched since 1949 when the Communists took over the city and many of the building’s tenants fled. Much of the Art Deco detailing remained – picture rails, doorknobs, baseboards – which Mr Dodington measured and photographed to recreate in his own home.

To keep costs down and stay true to the time period, Mr Dodington employed building materials and techniques that were typical of 1920s Shanghai. In the living room and kitchen, for instance, he hired welders from a shipbuilding company to build and install glass-and-steel French doors that mimicked the original exterior windows. And in the entryway, which he widened, he used a mixture of mud, straw and plaster to rebuild the elaborate curved crown moulding found in the rest of the apartment – one of the few original details that remained.

“It’s the most basic, basic building structure, but there’s not one crack in it,” he said. “If you do it today out of plaster, it cracks the first time the weather changes 10 degrees.”

The only problem came in the bathroom, where Mr Dodington wanted to create terrazzo walls and floors sprinkled with broken glass from Bombay Sapphire gin bottles – not for historical reasons, but because he liked the turquoise colour. This could only be achieved using cement as a base material, as it can be polished.

He collected 36 bottles over a four-month span and then went on an ill-timed vacation; when he returned, he found that the workers had used plaster of Paris instead of cement; too soft to polish.

“I had to call a taskforce, everybody I know,” he said. “In two weeks time, the whole of Shanghai collected – maybe the whole of Shanghai drank – 51 bottles of Bombay Sapphire. And we re-did it, this time with cement.”

After completing the renovations in six months – at a cost of US$15,000 (S$19,220) – the final step was to bring in his Art Deco furniture and mount the light fixtures, all of which are original and sourced from antique shops and junk markets across the city.

“You can have a building that feels right, with all the right decorative touches and the right architecture and the authenticity,” Mr Dodington said. “But for me, I also want the feel in the detail down to the furniture and the fixtures.”

He added: “I didn’t think I would ever have the energy to do it again. So I wanted it done right.”

Source : Today – 18 Mar 2011

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