From Agatha Christie to ‘Glass Onion’: Why Art Deco Is the Murder Mystery Aesthetic
In a smokey, wood-paneled study, a soft, warm glow cascades from a gold-and-jade glass lamp, revealing an emerald-green velvet armchair in one corner of the room. Ornate glass curiosities line the shelves. At the desk, a man has collapsed, his cigar still smoking in the ashtray, blood spilling onto the polished hardwood floor. This is a good old-fashioned murder mystery, where setting is everything. The whodunit relies on a small group of suspects who are effectively trapped together with the killer in their midst, whether in a stately manor, on a luxury yacht, or aboard an overnight train.
The murder mystery as we know it sprung to prominence in the 1930s thanks to authors such as Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Daly, and Raymond Chandler, whose series of detective novels popularized the literary genre. When filmmakers began adapting these novels for the screen, they merged the essential narrative elements—a puzzling murder, a group of idiosyncratic suspects, a cunning detective—with the glitz and glamour of the ’30s; more specifically, Art Deco influences. The Art Deco movement, which flourished in the United States and Europe during the 1920s and ’30s, centered a commitment to decadence, with common features like geometric patterns and the use of eye-catching and luxurious materials and colors. "Art Deco is generally summed up in three words: rich, bold, and decadent, with abstract shapes, patterns, and motifs, usually layered in a way that evokes glamour and luxury," says Tara Dennis, cofounder and director of interior design studio Archie Bolden.
Some of the earliest prominent murder mystery films came in the 1970s, with Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, both big-screen adaptations of Agatha Christie novels that put forth lavish sets filled with Art Deco elements—a regal boat decked with textured glass and velvet and wood finishes; an extravagant train with wood walls, gold ceilings, and patterned velvet chairs. Then, in the 1980s, came the Poirot and Miss Marple TV series, also Christie adaptations. Both leaned heavily into the Art Deco aesthetic, incorporating ornate decor and luxurious materials with geometric patterns. In the former, the fictional detective Poirot’s (David Suchet) office features a Deco-style room divider covered in an opulent floral pattern with deep reds and purples.
The 1985 film Clue, adapted from the popular board game of the same name, went on to become a cult classic thanks to its dark comedic, even camp take on the murder mystery genre. Set in a rambling New England estate, the black-comedy film blended a number of Art Deco elements—luscious red-velvet curtains, a green baby grand piano, sconces lining the wood-paneled walls—with more dated Victorian decor like old grandfather clocks, antique chairs, and faded wallpaper to heighten the spooky feel of the secluded mansion.
The past decade has seen a huge resurgence in popularity of the murder mystery, with additional adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, and original films like Amsterdam, See How They Run, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (the sequel to 2019’s Knives Out), as well as Hulu’s hit TV series Only Murders in the Building. (There’s also reportedly a Ryan Reynolds–led Clue remake in the works, as well as another upcoming Poirot movie.) While the genre has evolved since it originated, even contemporary Hollywood additions follow its aesthetic traditions in subtle and unexpected ways. "These movies share a few Art Deco stylistic threads," says Dennis. "They’re all heavily layered with furniture, decor, and objects in a mixture of forms to create a collection of eclectic pieces. Additionally, lighting is used sparingly but with intention—there’s an absence of overhead ceiling lighting; table and floor lamps comingle with wall sconces and perhaps a singular feature pendant, lowering the light in the space and creating pockets of shadows and darkness."
"Mysteries prefer nooks and crannies, which can be found in abundance in Art Deco design, where patterns and prints throw curious shadows [and] deep tones and textures hide a multitude of sins."
In Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, for instance, the scene is set at a luxurious island villa owned by self-obsessed tech mogul Miles (Edward Norton) with strikingly modern architecture and interiors—sleek lines; clean, beige tones—and a few understated Deco touches, which production designer Rick Heinrichs incorporated to bring the genre’s defining blend of luxury, fun, and danger into the 21st century. "In art, Deco is a very sort of loose term," says Heinrichs. "There are so many different kinds of it. [In the film,] they’ve got a lot of very shiny dark floors that one could almost imagine dancing on, and there are a lot of curvilinear shapes. It’s just about portraying a sense of fun."
"There are a lot of cantilever shapes in old murder mysteries," Heinrichs adds. "There’s a sense of weightlessness to a lot of these films and I wanted to make sure that that was part of this. It feels like money is no object in a sense—you can have whatever structure you could possibly imagine to live in."
Of course, Heinrich mixed the villa’s Deco touches with other artistic influences, because that’s what rings true for the character. "Miles has certain subversive tastes and displays art that spans a wide range of obviously very expensive classical and modern masters all the way to Banksy," he says. "He basically is purchasing whatever is the most expensive thing. It’s a real melange."
To Heinrichs, this mashup of styles is perhaps the best way to pay homage to the classic murder mystery aesthetic. "It’s a very elastic genre," he says. "When you read Agatha Christie and all the other famous murder mystery writers, they’re really playing with the expectations of the audience in order to present characters and explore their backstories, because those backstories become very important when it comes to the actual mystery. It’s the parade of humanity, basically, warts and all."
While Glass Onion forges its own stylistic path that uses both Art Deco and more modern design influences, it remains true to the tenets of the murder mystery aesthetic; after all, Miles’s home is crammed full of paintings, sculptures, and other knickknacks—just like so many of the other murder mystery homes that preceded it. "In essence, Art Deco is a style that consists of layering," says Dennis. "It’s at the other end of the spectrum from contemporary minimalism. It envelops you, wrapping you up in its decadence."
This, she continues, is the perfect atmospheric setup for a murder mystery: "Secrets and mysteries hide best in an overly decorated and highly textured space. Mysteries prefer nooks and crannies, which can be found in abundance in Art Deco design, where patterns and prints throw curious shadows, deep tones and textures hide a multitude of sins, and secrets can be buried deep within. If the eye doesn’t know where to land, then it doesn’t know who to point the finger at."
Top photo by John Wilson / © Netflix.
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