The gold mask of Tutankhamun
Archaeology Architecture Historic photography Listed places Post-War Architecture

How Tutankhamun Influenced 20th Century Design and Architecture

From the most expensive jewellery and furniture to public buildings, learn now Tutankhamun inspired the world of design and popular culture.

On 4 November 1922, deep below the sands of the Valley of the Kings, Egypt, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his excavators found the steps that would lead to the discovery of the over 3,000 year old tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamun, who died aged just 19.

The back of Tutankhamun’s solid gold with black stripes funerary mask with hieroglyphs on the body.
The back of Tutankhamun’s solid gold funerary mask. Image via Creative Commons

As the exquisite beauty and richness of the more than 5,000 grave goods were revealed, the world was mesmerised. ‘Egyptomania’ swept the globe.

The discovery inspired Ancient Egyptian-style design, nationally and internationally, in architecture, furnishings, fabrics, fashion, jewellery, hairstyles, art, interior design and popular culture, becoming an integral part of the visual language of Art Deco, a decorative arts style that would dominate until the mid-1930s.

Here we take a look at how this design revolution had a far-reaching legacy throughout the 20th century.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb

A photo of a granite pylon-shaped mausoleum in the Egyptian-style with lotus leaf clumns, a winged scarab above the door and two sphinxes either side of the entrance.
Granite mausoleum of the Illingworth family, Undercliffe Cemetery, Bradford, West Yorkshire, dating from 1860. The Egyptian-style pylon-shaped tomb has lotus leaf columns, a winged scarab with cobras above the entrance and is guarded by two sphynxes. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England/DP116904

Ancient Egypt first became fashionable in the late 18th and 19th centuries following the unsuccessful invasion of Egypt in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) who wanted a foothold in the Mediterranean. He took with him many scholars to collect scientific and historical information about Egypt, and it was their work that gave birth to the field of Egyptology.

Travellers too brought back collections of Egyptian antiquities, as well as accounts of the wonders they had seen – pyramid, obelisks, sphinxes and temples – influencing design and architecture, including mausoleums, tombs and furnishings.

A photo of two men and a woman at the top of some steps.
Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Carnarvon’s daughter and Howard Carter at the top of the steps leading down to the newly discovered tomb. Image in the Public Domain.

Many tombs had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, including important discoveries by a rich American, Theodore Davis (1838-1915) who, in the early 20th century, found artefacts bearing Tutankhamun’s name but not his tomb.

On the basis of Davis’ work, archaeologist and draughtsman Howard Carter (1874-1939) and his patron, passionate Egyptologist George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923) – whose family seat was Highclere Castle, Berkshire – believed that they might find Tutankhamun’s tomb. With a team of Egyptian excavators, they began searching.

After six long seasons of fairly fruitless digging, Lord Carnarvon decided to terminate the costly search. Carter fatefully persuaded him to approve one more season, finally finding sixteen steps cut into the rock floor of the Valley, leading downwards to a sealed door.

Panorama of the tomb’s antechamber, containing around 700 secular and religious objects.
Panorama of the tomb’s antechamber, containing around 700 secular and religious objects to accompany Tutankhamun into the afterlife, including funerary beds with animals heads, dismantled chariots, boxes of clothes and cosmetics and oval containers enclosing joints of meat. To the right, two life-size gilded statues of the pharaoh guard a sealed doorway. The jumbled nature of the room indicated that robbers had entered the tomb in the years immediately following the burial, and that it had been hurriedly re-ordered by necropolis officials before being resealed. Image in the Public Domain.

After stone and rubble had been removed, a second doorway was revealed. Carter prised out some stones and held a candle through the hole. ‘Details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist’ he said ‘…strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.’ It was the antechamber.

Tutankhamun’s gold funerary portrait mask, topped with a cobra and a vulture.
Tutankhamun’s gold funerary portrait mask, topped with a cobra and a vulture. The mask’s shoulders were inscribed with a hieroglyphic spell from the Book of the Dead. Image via Creative Commons.

Other chambers beyond contained thousands of artefacts, including exquisite gold statues of Tutankhamun, ornate jewellery, gilded furniture, cosmetics, fans, golden shrines, decorative weaponry, toys, vessels containing wine and perfumed oils, decorated wooden models of boats, bread, fruit and even flowers.

But the third chamber, the burial chamber, was the most astounding…

At the heart of four gilded shrines, one inside the other, ornately decorated with religious scenes and hieroglyphic texts and almost filling the chamber, lay a sarcophagus carved with the images of protective goddesses. Within that were three coffins in human shape, tightly fitting one inside the other. The outermost coffins were carved of wood overlaid with gold, with the middle coffin encrusted with polychromatic glass and semi-precious stones.

In the innermost coffin, made of over 110 kilograms of solid gold, lay the mummified body of Tutankhamun, untouched since the day of burial, his head enveloped in an extraordinary gold portrait mask.

A black and white photo of men carrying boxes in the desert.
Artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun being moved along rails in the Valley of the Kings. Image in the Public Domain.

The clearance of the more than 5,300 items from the tomb was long and difficult owing to their sheer number and fragility, taking around ten years.

Once an object had been photographed in situ by the official archaeological photographer, Harry Burton (1879-1940), it was removed from the tomb and taken to a nearby conservation laboratory in the Valley of the Kings for documentation.

Railway tracks were laid from the site and large containers with boxes of artefacts were manually pushed along, before being loaded onto a steam vessel and delivered to the Cairo Museum.

Today, the entire Tutankhamun collection will be displayed at the newly-built Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, due to open in 2022.

‘Egyptomania’

Advertisement for a French perfume featuring imagery from Ancient Egypt, with the perfume bottle in the shape of Tutankhamun’s coffin. Part of the text reads: 'Presenting Parfumerie Ramses Cairo'.
Advertisement for a French perfume aimed at the American market, dating June 1923. It features imagery from Ancient Egypt, with the perfume bottle in the shape of Tutankhamun’s coffin. Part of the text reads: The flasques are… fascinating objects…holding in their crystal depths penetrating scent-bases known and used since the days of Tut-ankh-Amen. Image in the Public Domain.

To help defray the huge costs of excavation and conservation, Lord Carnarvon signed a deal with The Times, giving it exclusive access to the work, thereby seriously alienating Egypt and the Egyptian press. The newspaper featured many of Harry Burton’s 3,000 dramatically-lit black and white photographs.

The discovery of the tomb coincided with the growing consumerism of the 1920s, as well as with the emergence of mass media – radio, telegraph, film, mass circulation newspapers – quickly spreading the extraordinary story to a global audience. Excitement was heightened by the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon March 1923, just five months after the discovery of the tomb, leading to feverish speculation about the ‘curse of Tutankhamun’

A winged scarab beetle made of gold, platinum, diamonds, emeralds, blue-glazed ceramic and quartz.
Cartier, London, brooch, dating from 1924 – a winged scarab beetle made of gold, platinum, diamonds, emeralds, blue-glazed ceramic and quartz. The scarab was an important sacred symbol of Ancient Egypt – representing the cycle of life: birth, death, and resurrection.  It featured in jewellery and artefacts in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Cartier was one of several leading Parisian jewellers to blend Egyptian motifs with Art Deco – a inter-war design movement characterized by boldly delineated geometric shapes and strong colour.  Image via Creative Commons.

Tutankhamun inspired the world of design and popular culture, from the most expensive jewellery and furniture, to ceramics, games, cigarette cards and posters; from a King Tut brand of Californian lemons produced by the Johnson Fruit Company, to books such as The Kiss of the Pharaoh: The Love Story of Tut-Ankh-Amen, published in 1925; from the then American President, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), calling one of his dogs King Tut, to songwriter, Harry Von Tilzer, writing a ‘Roaring Twenties’ novelty hit, Old King Tut.

Detail of fabric with Egyptian-style birds, eyes and flowers.
Detail of fabric from 1923. Image via Creative Commons.

Fashion too came under the Tutankhamun spell: 

The discovery inspired clothes and accessories decorated with motifs such as lotus flowers (associated with rebirth and renewal), cobras and vultures (symbols of protection), falcons (linked to the god Horus, embodiment of divine kingship), papyrus (freshness and vigour), solar discs (sacred image of the Sun god Ra), as well as hieroglyphics and Ancient Egyptian religious symbols. 

A drawing of three women in different Egyptian influenced dresses with black bob hair cuts.
Examples of 1920s fashion influenced by Ancient Egypt. Image in the Public Domain.

There was a fashion for loosely draped dresses, often with sashes. Bobbed hair and dramatic makeup, including black kohl eye liner, became popular.

Egyptian-influenced architecture in the 1920s and 1930s

Two large black cat statues sit outside a large white building with colourful Egyptian-style columns.
Part of the frontage of the former Carreras cigarette factory, Greater London House, Hampstead Road, London. Opening in 1928, the original Classical-style plan was adapted by Marcus Collins and Owen Collins to the Egyptian style. The building pioneered advanced construction methods, including reinforced concrete, air conditioning, a dust extraction plant. With its tall bronze window frames and maple flooring, it was the largest and most modern factory in the country at the time. Today it houses offices. Image via Creative Commons.

In the 1920s, newly developed building techniques and materials offered architects exciting freedoms and design possibilities.

The Art Deco Carreras cigarette factory references the red, blue and green colours of Ancient Egypt, albeit in muted form, as well as many of its motifs and symbols, such as its twelve pillars with their papyrus bud capitals and stylized papyrus stems at the base of their shafts. The company’s name ‘Carreras’ on the frontage is carved in a font loosely reminiscent of hieroglyphics.

Two enormous black bronze cats, 3.6 metres high, guard the entrance. These both reference the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess, Bastet, as well as Carreras’ then best known cigarettes – ‘Black Cat.’

Much of the factory’s Egyptian-style detailing was lost in the early 1960s when the building was converted to offices. Using the 1920s plans and drawings, the new owners’ architects restored most of the original features in the 1990s.

A photo of a red and cream building with Egyptian-style pillars.
Pyramid Cinema, Sale, Greater Manchester, 1934, designed by Drury and Gomersall, one of the last Egyptian-style cinemas to be built and a rare virtually complete survivor of the Egyptian idiom. The building originally functioned both as a cinema and a theatre. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England/DP109992.

Tutankhamun’s influence, along with interest in the continuing exploration of sites in Ancient Egypt, fed into the Art Deco style of architecture in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly for public and commercial buildings.

The exterior of this cinema – which once had a central clock at the top and the word ‘PYRAMID’ prominently carved beneath – has four columns topped by capitals in the form of palms, and winged solar discs above the two doors flanking the entrance. The interior’s little-altered Egyptian decorative scheme includes lotus flowers and a proscenium arch featuring a vulture, wings outspread. On either side of the organ console was a head of a pharaoh.

A white brick wall with Egyptian-style borders in green, yellow and blue with an entrance way into the market.
An entrance to the covered market of Reliance Arcade, Brixton, London, built 1925-1926, by architects Andrews and Peascod, best known for their early 20th century cinema designs. This narrow covered shopping arcade incorporates a glazed roof with small shop units located either side of an indoor pedestrian thoroughfare. Listed Grade II. Image © Historic England/DP148246.

This modest market building, one of three in Brixton Village, shows that the fashion for Art Deco Egyptian design following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was not just confined to large commercial premises.

Its strictly geometric Art Deco façade, made of buff ceramic tiles, uses the bright blue, red, yellow and green Egyptian colour palette in the detailing of the small columns of the first floor window, as well for the decorative tiling above and to either side of the entrance.

Egyptian influenced architecture in the 1980s

A photo of a large Pumping station with two giant columns with a multi-coloured decorative capitals, and a huge fan in the centre above the door.
Post-Modern Temple of Storms, Isle of Dogs Pumping Station, London, designed by John Outram (1934-), opened June 1988, one of three pumping stations commissioned by the London Docklands Development Corporation to cope with rainwater running off newly-built streets. The exuberant design seems to pay reference to Ancient Egyptian architecture with its two giant columns (ventilation ducts) resembling those of Egypt in their shape, while their multi-coloured decorative capitals are reminiscent of Egyptian temples, and the great ‘eye’ (a huge fan) can be viewed as an interpretation of a winged solar disc. Listed Grade II*. Image © Historic England/DP195581.

Interest in Ancient Egyptian style waned between the inter-war years and the late 20th century, before resurging during the rise of Post-Modernism in architecture in the 1980s – a time of rampant materialism.

The decades-long gap was largely a product of the Second World War (1939-1945), followed by the powerful influence of post-war Modernism, with its emphasis on the functionality of buildings and a repudiation of ornamentation and decoration.

Post-Modernism (PoMo) – broadly characterized by a rejection of the austere design that went before in favour of an irreverent and playful mix of modern and older architectural traditions, often in exaggerated scale – saw architects once again embracing the styling and motifs of Ancient Egypt, as well as elements of the Classical.

A large Homebase store with Egyptian style pillars
Sainsbury’s Homebase store, West Kensington, London, by designer/developer Ian Pollard (1945-2019), photographed in 2011. It opened in 1988. Image © Historic England/DP103885.

The Ancient Egyptian-style design of this DIY and home store was researched by Pollard and his stone carver, Richard Kindersley (1939-), during visits to London’s British Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as in consultation with Egyptian experts.

The decorative capitals of the columns running along the façade were typical of Ancient Egyptian temples. Two rearing sandstone cobras – traditional symbols of protection of a pharaoh – flanked the entrance as water spouts. A limestone frieze of ten Ancient Egyptian deities decorated the façade overlooking the car park to the left of the entrance.

A close up photo of the frieze with two figures, one figure with a bird head and a moon on their head facing left, and a figure with a crocodile head facing right.
Two of the deities from the frieze, carved by Richard Kindersley and his workforce, with some details gilded, included the god of the Moon, Thothon (left), and Sobek, god of crocodiles (right). Image © Historic England/DP103881.

As the building neared completion, the Sainsbury’s chairman and board got cold feet, claiming the decorative features overwhelmed the Homebase brand. They ordered some columns be pulled down, a large sphinx guarding the entrance be removed, the original brightly-painted columns be painted over with white, and the winged solar disc over the entrance hidden by the Homebase logo.

The building, with its homage to Ancient Egypt, survived for 26 years, before being demolished in 2014 to make way for luxury flats.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

Further reading

  • Egypt in England by Chris Elliott, published by English Heritage.
  • Excavating the Archive: Tutankhamun, published by Bodleian Library Publishing/The Griffith Institute.

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