What is Art Deco?

THE ART DECO MOVEMENT AND DEFINITION

Art Deco is a style of design and decoration developed during the 1920 – 1950s period which is still popular today. It followed and replaced the Art Nouveau style in popularity at the end of the 19th century. Art Deco reached its peak of popularity during the following World War 1 although the term “Art Deco,” was not used for the style until it was coined in 1968, by Bevis Hillier in his book, “Art Deco the Style of the 1920s”.

Tulsa Art Deco Experience front book cover

“Art Deco” was a reference to the “Exposition des Arts Dec and oratifs et Industrials,” held in Paris in the 1925.   “Art Deco” replace the previous prominent style “Art Nouveau”.Art Deco differed from Art Nouveau and other styles in distinct ways. Art Nouveau tended to be floral, elaborate and had detailed lines.  Art Deco was bold, stark, and had simple lines structures.  Art Deco buildings are designed to be uncluttered, and therefore require less maintenance.

 Art Deco was the modernistic design style of its time. It had the goal of being clean, uncluttered, while at the same time being refined and elegant.  Art Nouveau featured lavish, intricate ornamentation, superlative and fine materials.  Art Deco on the other hand; was the first 20th century style and focused on machinery, mass production and the growing impact of the modernization.  Art Deco expanded on pre-existing movements such as Constructivism, Cubism, Modernism, Bauhaus, and Futurism.

Art Deco was a luxurious, and elegant modern style that had distinctive characteristics. These defining characteristics included:

  • repeating images
  • overlapping images
  • chevrons
  • zigzags
  • lightning bolts
  • geometric patterns
  • Streamlined forms
  • bold colors
  • exotic motifs
  • flora and fauna

A Brief History of the Art Deco Movement and the Reasons for Its Emergence

Although the “Art Deco” was a reference to the “Exposition des Arts Dec and oratifs et Industrials,” Paris Exposition is considered by most as the start of Art Deco, the movement actually began earlier.  The movement was greatly affected by the changes in society resulting from the aftermath of World War I.  This was a time for a Renaissance in all art and culture that was expressed to architecture.   Traditional architects sought to avert disaster by sticking to the classical designs of ancient architecture, while ultra-modernists embraced a minimalist philosophy, reflected in the Bauhaus and International Style of architecture.  Art Deco architecture employed a modern vision that embraced technology while referencing ancient civilizations through the use of symbolism.  It is highly stylized and well differentiated from the other modern styles.

What was Americas first Art Deco Skyscraper?

New York City’s American Radiator Building was the first American Art Deco skyscraper.  The 1924 building is a combination of the Gothic and Art Deco styles. Interestingly this actually preceded the Paris Exhibition of 1925.

In 1922, in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune held a design contest for architects to submit design proposals for the newspaper’s new headquarters.  The second place plan, was an Art Deco design submitted by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.  The winner of the competition, Raymond Hood, would later be selected to build the American radiator Company headquarters in New York City. He incorporated many of the ideas from Saarinen’s Chicago Tribune design into the American Radiator Building.  

Why are there Egyptian, Mayan, and Aztec influences in Art Deco?

In 1922, the tomb of Egypt’s ancient pharaoh, Tutankhamun was discovered Howard Carter.  This historic event awakened a worldwide interest in early Egyptian civilization.  In a broader sense it stimulated interest in other ancient civilizations such as Mayan, and Aztec.  Themes associated with these cultures were soon incorporated into Art Deco designs.  Timewise the increased interest in these ancient cultures coincided with the development of the new and Moderne style of Art Deco architecture and design.

What was the Paris Exposition of 1925?

The 1925, Paris “Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et lndustriels” was the formal unveiling of Art Deco to the world. International expositions in that era were a popular way to disseminate ideas and create new trends.  Due to World War 1, it was two decades since the last great European trade exposition had occurred.

The Paris Exposition had more than 150 pavilions representing tremendous in the center of Paris, between the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde.  The exposition grounds contained cafes, restaurants, theatres, monuments, plazas, and gardens which utilize multiple styles of design. Participating nations built pavilions that displayed their contributions to the fair.  The flame of the fair was the new modern world.  The pavilions were a major contributor to Art Deco architectural design and theory. The United States was not one of the participating countries in the Paris Exposition.  At that time Herbert Hoover was the US Secretary of Commerce and didn’t think American would represent us well in producing original designs.  Many American designers did attend the exposition and returned to this country full of new ideas to further develop the Art Deco style in America. This resulted in a creative boom in American design.   The architecture of the Paris Exposition in only helped convince American architects to embrace further the Art Deco style.

Why are there Egyptian, Mayan, and Aztec influences in Art Deco?

In 1922, the tomb of Egypt’s ancient pharaoh, Tutankhamun was discovered Howard Carter.  This historic event awakened a worldwide interest in early Egyptian civilization.  In a broader sense it stimulated interest in other ancient civilizations such as Mayan, and Aztec.  Themes associated with these cultures were soon incorporated into Art Deco designs.  Timewise the increased interest in these ancient cultures coincided with the development of the new and Moderne style of Art Deco architecture and design.

What was the Paris Exposition of 1925?

The 1925, Paris “Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et lndustriels” was the formal unveiling of Art Deco to the world. International expositions in that era were a popular way to disseminate ideas and create new trends.  Due to World War 1, it was two decades since the last great European trade exposition had occurred.

The Paris Exposition had more than 150 pavilions representing tremendous in the center of Paris, between the Eiffel Tower and the Place de la Concorde.  The exposition grounds contained cafes, restaurants, theatres, monuments, plazas, and gardens which utilize multiple styles of design. Participating nations built pavilions that displayed their contributions to the fair.  The flame of the fair was the new modern world.  The pavilions were a major contributor to Art Deco architectural design and theory. The United States was not one of the participating countries in the Paris Exposition.  At that time Herbert Hoover was the US Secretary of Commerce and didn’t think American would represent us well in producing original designs.  Many American designers did attend the exposition and returned to this country full of new ideas to further develop the Art Deco style in America. This resulted in a creative boom in American design.   The architecture of the Paris Exposition in only helped convince American architects to embrace further the Art Deco style.

How did Art Deco influence Americas Film Industry?

Cedric Gibbons, a noted Hollywood set designer, attended the Paris Exhibition and distributed the Art Deco imagery through films around the world.  Gibbons created a new “Hollywood Image” based on the modernism of Art Deco.  It highlighted the glamour and a futuristic aspects of the style. His first Hollywood film to feature Art Deco was (“Our Dancing Daughters”), starring Joan Crawford.

The film was very popular, creating enthusiasm the new style. Numerous films from other studios began copying the style, plus creating a new “Hollywood Image.”

The symbols for many of the studios themselves reflected the Art Deco style.  Even the Oscar itself is an Art Deco statuette. Audiences around the world viewed the style on the screen and wished it for their own. This was duplicated in homes as well as the architecture in cities.

What makes a building or structure Art Deco?

Art Deco is typically expressed in the shared characteristics at most Art Deco building share.  Some distinctions of Art Deco some forms of Art Deco oriented vertically reaching into the sky.  Other forms spread laterally with horizontal dimensions emphasized. Some people refer to these properties as the phases of Art Deco.

Lobby of the Tulsa OK Philcade Building.

What is zigzag Art Deco?

Zigzag Art Deco

The early stages of American Art Deco architecture featured skyscrapers in large metropolitan areas, like New York City and Chicago. This class of 1920s architecture was commonly referred to as “Jazz-age Deco”, “Zig-zag Deco”, or the “Skyscraper Style.”  Today “Zigzag Art Deco” is the name was commonly used for the style. 

Zigzag Art Deco is known for its emphasis on the vertical aspect of a structure. It combines this with combined with a geometric, rectilinear theme.   Buildings of the style typically used to displayed elaborate facades with vertical fluted accents and stepped back details that ascend upwards with the structure.  

Chrysler Building

New York Cities Chrysler Building is a fine examples of the vertical orientation of a Zigzag Art Deco building.   Looking at the Chrysler building you can almost imagine it being a rocket ship pointed at the heavens.

New York Cities Chrysler Building

What is PWA Art Deco?

Depression PWA Deco

The second Art Deco style was a result of the economic pressure the Great Depression in the 1930s. This forced designers to conceive designs with cheaper products with less ostentatious designs.

How did the Great Depression effect Art Deco?

Streamline Moderne

The Streamline Modern Phase of Art Deco Architecture came after the Great Depression was created after the Great Depression period and emphasized the horizontal aspect of an exterior.  The style was increasingly aerodynamic and void of added ornamentation.  The “Zig-zag Deco” style emphasized verticality whereas “Streamline Deco” emphasized the horizontal nature of objects.

 The streamlined style change the look functionality of almost every consumer product during the 1930s. This new style allowed manufacturers to produce items that were less cluttered with accessories and therefore more efficient to produce.

The US automobile industry utilized the streamlined style to create cars with enhanced performance and sleek new styles that were appealing to the customers.  The streamlined style made cars look like they were built for speed and performance.

Architects quickly embrace the Streamline style which set the United States ahead of the rest of the world in being innovators of style instead of imitators of it.  No longer was Europe considered the center of architectural design.  Through the 1930s Americans industry impressively mass-produced products based on the streamline style.

The streamlined style was particularly attractive to the architecture of factories. This is similar to how banks and other utilities use the zigzag Art Deco style to attract customers. Streamline Art Deco was used by factories to convey the feeling that they were more than just a factory and employer. The style publicized that this company was efficient and modern.

Chicago World’s Fair of 1933

Art Deco originated in Europe but was expanded and perfected in the United States. In 1933, the city of Chicago presented in the “Chicago World’s Fair”. Even though this was the onset of the Great Depression, the fair was a huge success. The fair’s theme was, “The Century of Progress”.

Progress throughout the world was being led by the United States.  On impeded in the United States, Europe was hampered by its dependence on handwork craftsmanship. Where the rest of the world was creating art pieces one by one, Americans were building factories that would mass-produce artistic items.  American Art Deco was being created on an industrial scale with machine production.  This industrialization of Art Deco was highlighted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. 

Art Modern

By the mid-1930s, Art Deco architecture in America had become a middle-class rather than an elite style reserved for the wealthy.  It began showing up in middle-class facilities like diners and gas stations.  These facilities had the Streamline characteristics of the Streamline Art Deco style, yet more square rather than an elongated as the Streamline modern structures.  This new Art Deco style became the “Art Modern Style”.

Art Deco Diners

The Art Deco styled diner often are covered in stainless steel and look like a railroad car speeding down the tracks.  In the 1930s they became part of America’s travel culture and were commonly found along major highways like Route 66.

Art Deco gas stations

Cities Service Streamline service station in Tulsa Oklahoma on Route 66.

Art modern architecture became a way for companies to brand their products and services. Gas stations for example were built with consistent appearance to brand their appearance with particular oil companies. For example, Texaco in 1937, created a gas station design by Walter Teague that were built throughout the nation. These Art Moderne, “Oasis” service stations, had clean streamline style lines exuding cleanness and service efficiency. The distinctive green stripes enabled motorists easily identify Texaco stations from the road.  Creating a corporate image became an important part of American business.

Nuevo Deco, Retro Deco and Echo Deco

After the Art Moderne period many people wanted to build structures that continued to visually display Art Deco features. The style of these buildings are given a number of different names depending on their geographic location. Some regions call these buildings “Nuevo Deco”. The Northern mid-west uses the term “Echo Deco”, whereas the Southwest prefers calling them “Retro Deco”.

Retro Deco Tulsa OK Downtown Bus Station.