Unlike other major exhibitions of the art deco period, DecoDence: Legendary Interiors and Illustrious Travelers Aboard the SS Normandie, which opens today at the South Street Seaport Museum, isn’t an over-the-top display. Instead, it’s a balanced, and entirely engrossing, collection of furnishings, ephemera, and architectural elements that graced the legendary ocean liner.
Among the show’s highlights: photographs that document the daily activities aboard the ship and capture the atmosphere of the Grand Salon and other deluxe compartments, and promotional accessories, such as a black leather clutch, presumed to be by Hermès, that mimics the Normandie’s famous silhouette. Wooden French sailor figures used for window displays; and architectural fragments from the well-known églomisé mural panels by Jean Dupas to a pair of bronze doors used in one of the ship’s private dining rooms. Other standouts are the modernist designs in silver by Luc Lanel for Christofle created for first class tea sets, table crumbers, and serving pieces whose geometric forms look as if they were plucked from MoMA’s recent Bauhaus exhibition. Arguably the masterpiece of the exhibit is the one-of-a-kind ash veneer baby grand piano designed by Louis Sue for the Deauville Suite (each of the Normandie’s four Grand Luxe suites had included a piano by its respective interior designer) that can also be seen in its heyday in a photograph with Marlene Dietrich seated at it.
Nearly all of the more than one hundred items on display come from the private collection of Mario J. Pulice, who, inspired by memories of his grandparents’ frequent transatlantic trips from Italy, began collecting items from the Normandie when he was just twelve years old. Pulice’s passion has led him to collect items as modest as room keys and matchboxes and as spectacular as furniture suites and interior design drawings—a wonderful lesson for antiques connoisseurs of any ilk.
Images: Photograph of the Dining Room; photograph of Marlene Dietrich at the Deauville Suite baby grand piano designed by Louis Sue; figural perfume bottle designed by Jean Patou; photograph of the Grand Salon. All courtesy of Mario J. Pulice. Video of the SS Normandie’s maiden voyage to New York.