Through the Lens: Art Deco's debt to Agatha Christie

Screenshot from "Evil Under the Sun." Image Courtesy of Carnival films, LWT & Picture Partnership Productions

This article comes courtesy of Charlotte Neilson, the author of the fascinating design blog Casting Architecture. Her column, Through the Lens, will look at architecture and production design in TV and film.

The categorisation of period architecture generally remains firmly in the realm of the professional or amateur enthusiast - let’s face it, you can go through life without knowing the difference between a Corinthian and Ionic column without too much inconvenience. Oddly, however, most people are able to name a few of the main features of Art Deco architecture fairly easily - the curved corners, stylised forms, the use of bakelite and chrome, the transport motifs.

It’s interesting that this period is so much more familiar to us, considering it spanned quite a short timeframe compared to other architectural styles; the Arts and Crafts and Art Noveau movements, for example, which both occurred in a similar time frame to Art Deco, are much less known to the wider community.

It’s possible of course that Art Deco is just more omnipresent because of its universal appeal, or its uniqueness, but I think most of the credit should go to Monsieur Hercule Poirot.

Learn more about Agatha Christie’s contribution to Art Deco, after the break...

Screenshot from "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." Image Courtesy of Carnival films, LWT & Picture Partnership Productions

Agatha Christie’s eccentric Belgian detective has been bringing the 1920’s and 1930’s to life for nearly a century. As he goes about untangling the intrigues of the British upper middle classes, we are inadvertently treated to the particular built environment of their world. And not just on the page. Agatha Christie’s popularity has made her work a lightning rod for television and film adaptions, with countless productions featuring the buildings which so contributed to the attitude and spirit of the time.

Unlike screenwriters who take huge liberties with history, production designers generally take pride in accurate reproduction. Which is just as well - the mass exposure achieved by TV movies (and the resulting reruns) carry the danger of becoming more real to audiences than the reality recorded in archives. 

Consequently, production designers of Christie film adaptions have been responsible for informing and shaping our knowledge of art deco design for decades. They have shown us not only how the buildings would have looked in their heyday but also how they were used - the drinks trolley, the cut glass perfume bottles and the lacquer medicine boxes (usually stuffed with arsenic or other deadly poison).  The cumulative effect of this coverage means that even the prints and graphics of interiors are instantly recognisable - the ubiquitous sunburst motifs, chevrons and zigzags all instantly evoke a sense of 30's glamour.

Screenshot from "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd." Image Courtesy of Carnival films, LWT & Picture Partnership Productions

Last year the British TV network ITV commissioned its 13th series of Poirot Mysteries, giving David Suchet the opportunity to bring the detective to life in every one of Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries. We will again see London's Florin Court (playing Poirot’s apartment building) and the Hoover Building (both designed by Guy Morgan & Partners) as well as cameos from buildings such as the iconic Penguin Pool at the London Zoo by the Tecton Group, all featured in previous episodes in the series. These buildings represent the core of machine age design and they speak of the optimism and faith in social and technological progress of their day.

Florin Court facade. Image © Flickr User Matt from London. Used under Creative Commons
Hoover Building. Image © Nick Weall
Penguin Pool. Image © Flickr User Matt from London. Used under Creative Commons

So this all begs an obvious question - will any current novelist immortalise contemporary architecture in years to come? Best selling novels of 2012 included two series with film adaptions either released or underway - The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey - and while these may well make interesting commentary about culture and humanity in years to come, it’s hard to see how they might represent today’s built environment. The Twilight series has shown potential – it featured the strong contemporary work of Portland’s Skylab and Brazilian architects Bernardes + Jacobsen - but it’s hard to imagine many remakes of the series on televisions in decades to come.

Perhaps the seedy dinge of Ian Rankin's Edinborough will take on a nostalgic appeal in the future, or further installments of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Series (The Girl who Played with Fire is currently in production) will showcase more contemporary Scandanavian design. We can only hope that current architectural ideas are given the same longevity that Agatha Christie's Poirot has given to Art Deco.

About this author
Cite: Charlotte Neilson. "Through the Lens: Art Deco's debt to Agatha Christie" 22 Mar 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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