In an age when the habit of smoking seems to be on a par with a bad case of multiple homicide, it is interesting to see an example of a wallpaper from the 1930s titled ‘Nicotine’.In actual fact, the wallpaper design was produced by Donald Deskey for the Men’s Smoking Room, known as the ‘Nicotine Room’, at the Radio City Music Hall, in the Rockefeller Center, New York.

Donald Deskey graduated as an architect, but decided not to pursue that career and instead became a decorative, industrial, and later a graphic designer. In 1925 he attended the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which was to highlight the style that today we call ‘Art Deco’.

Deskey was impressed with this new French approach to design and started working in the Art Deco style when he got back to the US. However, he is better known today as one of the pioneers of what could be called American Art Deco, that is ‘Moderne’ or ‘Streamline Moderne’.In the 1930s Deskey won the commission to design the interiors of the Radio City Music Hall. This was a prestigious award and helped to make his career.

The wallpaper itself was just a small part of the design output for the Radio City Music Hall, which included furniture and textiles. It is a peculiar combination of a French inspired Art Deco print, mixed with a Caribbean or South American feel. It has to be remembered that Latin America was a big influence on US design and popular culture in the 1930s and 40s, and included music and the movies. This design would have sat equally well within the interior of a New York nightclub that played Latin American music and had a Latin American theme, which many of them did at the time. In fact, the wallpaper could well have been called ‘Calypso’ rather than ‘Nicotine’.
As to why the colour of the wallpaper is so close to the colour of a nicotine stain. Perhaps it was consciously chosen to prolong the life of the wallpaper, as the actual nicotine stains would be indistinguishable from the original colour scheme, or perhaps it was just coincidental. Whatever the truth, it is an interesting piece of design that sums up a small period in popular American culture.

Another men’s lounge is decorated with The History of Nicotine (The Life of Saint Nicotine) by Deskey himself, imprinted on aluminum foil. The mural was requested by the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which was looking for uses for one of its products — the aluminum foil that appears in cigarette packs.




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