What are the Art Deco Building Styles?

The most commonly defined styles of Art Deco are Zigzag, PWA/WPA, Streamline, Art Modern, and Retro Deco styles. Each of these styles is described briefly below and will be described in more detail in future posts. The styles have been supplemented with several regional Art Deco styles like Pueblo Deco, the Miami Beach style and in some cases Frank Lloyd Wright’s Organic Style.

An Art Deco Style is visually one of the easiest to identify. It has sharp-edges and often includes geometric decorative details.


The 1925 Paris Exposition

The 1925 Paris Exposition “Des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels”

The style was featured at the 1925, Paris “Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et lndustriels”.  This was the formal unveiling of Art Deco form to the world.  At the time it was simply called the “Modern Style”.  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.  Many of the prominent pavilions were constructed in this new architectural style that would later be known as Art Deco.

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Tulsa Will Rogers High School

I was fortunate to have gone to Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School, an Art Deco masterpiece, from the fall of 1962-1965.  I really appreciated the beauty of building and its exquisite interior and auditorium.   No one knew it was “Art Deco”. The term hadn’t been created yet. 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”.

The architectural implementation of the style was a break with past standards and incorporated ideas considered modern for its time. (1920s-1930s). Art Deco was America’s first architectural style that it developed itself, with their own unique expression.  It was a forward-looking approach that didn’t use traditional European styles or revival styles based on their European predecessors.

Art Deco Styles

What determines the Art Deco architectural style?

Art Deco is a very broad definition for architectural styles that differ in appearance and time periods.  Sometimes the two factors of time and appearance do not agree. So exactly how should you define the style for a particular type of Art Deco building?

Zigzag Style

What is 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 called a number of different names like “Jazz-age Deco”, “Zig-zag Deco”, or the “Skyscraper Style.”  Today “Zigzag” is the preferred name used to describe this style of Art Deco. 

The building on the right is the Oklahoma City Citizens Bank Tower that was built to replicate the Frank LLoyd Wright built Price Tower in Bartlesville Oklahoma.

Time Period
1020s- 1930s

Common Building Types
.     Skyscrapers    
·      Commercial Buildings
·         Office Buildings
·         Government Buildings 
Identifiable Features
. Vertical Appearance
·         Sharp edged,
. Use of geometrical forms
·         Stylized decorative panels
·         Low relief decorative panels
·         Stepped back facade
·         Strips of windows with decorative spandrels
·         Reeding and fluting

Features and Characteristics of Zigzag Art Deco

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 display elaborate facades with vertical fluted accents and stepped back details that ascend upwards trend of the structure.  

Depression PWA/WPA Art Deco Style

What is Depression (PWA/WPA) Art Deco?

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Chandler Oklahoma Route 66 Interpretive Center

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.

The Great Depression 

The Great Depression in the United States began with the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It created a decade of poverty, deflation, and an inability to fund new projects.  

To create jobs and income for Americans Franklin D Roosevelt created projects termed the “New Deal” was intended to create jobs and income for Americans.  Two of the most prominent projects of the “new deal” or the PWA (Public Works Authority) and WPA (Works Progress Administration) programs.  The idea behind the programs was to promote and help finance the development of both private and municipal projects that employed numerous individuals on a local basis.  This would help alleviate the financial needs of the nation while developing and improving the infrastructure for the country.

PWA (Public Works Authority) was created in 1933, was a giant public works construction agency. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created in 1935. The agency operated from 1939 to 1943.  Both these agencies were part of the Federal Emergency Administration.

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Tulsa Oklahoma Fairgrounds Pavillion example of PWA/WPA (Depression) style Art Deco

How did the Great Depression effect Art Deco?

Once the Great Depression occurred in the United States it began the end of the zigzag Art Deco period that utilized expensive materials and a luxurious lifestyle reminiscent of the Great Gatsby. Black Tuesday, when the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 was a start of a new realization that construction needed to be focused on realistic designs and goals.

As the depression spread around the world Art Deco morphed into a more practical and less expensive architectural form. Style was paired down to match what one could afford. It was a pragmatic, austere and affordable approach. There was less emphasis on the expensive verticality of Zigzag and more emphasis on lower structures that symbolized strength.

Time Period



The PWA/WPA style of Art Deco is known by many names.  Is also referred to as PWA Moderne, PWA/WPA Modern, Federal Modern, Depression Modern and Classical Modern. The defining feature of the style has nothing to do with appearance but to the fact that part of the funding for the project construction came from the Public Works Administration (PWA) and or the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Identifiable Features

The style typically were modern adaptions of traditional styles like Beaux-Arts, Zigzag and Streamline Art Deco. The structures were typically conservative due to the economic conditions of the time.  These projects typically would use materials indigenous to the locale in which they were being constructed. For example, they might use stone from a quarry in the local area.  This also generated additional income and jobs locally promoting the local economy.

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Tulsa Oklahoma Fairgrounds Pavillion example of PWA/WPA (Depression) style Art Deco
Copyright 2021, Don Wagner Family Foundation, All Rights ReservedTulsa Oklahoma Fairgrounds Pavillion example of PWA/WPA (Depression) style Art DecoCommon Building Types
Government Buildings
Post Offices
Transportation Facilities
Train Depots
Public Facilities
Civic Centers
Public Schools
Parks Facilities
Local Armories
Commercial Facilities
Office Buildings

Identifiable Features
Classical Forms
balanced and symmetrical
Recessed panel windows
Flat surfaces
Smooth stone or stucco

Streamline Art Deco Style

The Streamline Modern Phase of Art Deco Architecture came 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.

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Will Rogers Archway, Interstate I-44 Highway, Vinita Oklahoma

Time Period


Common Building Types

  • Theaters
  • Diners
  • Gas Stations
  • Commercial Buildings
  • Corporate Offices
  • Car Dealerships
  • Apartments
  • Houses

Identifiable Features

  • Smooth wall surface
  • Glass Blocks
  • Less Ornamentation
  • Aerodynamic Lines

The Streamline Style

The streamline style changed the look functionality of almost every consumer product. The new focus was to produce items that were less cluttered and were more efficient to produce. 

The automobile industry utilized the streamlined style to create cars with enhanced performance and sleek new styles appealing to their customers.  The streamlined styled cars look like they were faster and had more performance.

Architects quickly embrace the Streamline style. American architects became the style and trend setters for the rest of the world instead of imitators of it.  No longer was Europe considered the center of architectural design.  The automobile dealers mimic the streamline style in their auto showcase buildings. 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 Art Deco Style

The Modern style, also referred to as “Art Moderne” came after the “Streamline” style and is characterized by asymmetrical cubic designs which often includes rounded corners.  The Modern style is simple and unadorned with prolific art as was prior Art Deco styles.  It is horizontally oriented with simple geometric shapes and little ornamentation.  It typically employs flat roofs. 

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 characteristics of the Streamline Art Deco style, yet more square rather than an elongated.  This became the “Art Modern Style”.

 Time Period


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.

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Art Deco gas stations

stations for example were built with consistent appearance to brand their appearance with particular oil companies. Texaco is a good example of this.  In 1937, they duplicated a Walter Teague gas station design throughout the country. 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.  This marketing strategy was copied by most other oil companies.

Copyright 2021, Don Wagner Family Foundation, All Rights Reserved
Tower Station in Shamrock Texas
  • Diners
  • Gas Stations
  • Commercial Buildings
  • Corporate Offices
  • Apartments
  • Houses
  • Fire Houses

Identifiable Features

  • asymmetrical cubic designs
  • Smooth wall surface
  • rounded corners
  • Glass blocks
  • Simple and unadorned with prolific art
  • horizontally oriented
  • simple geometric shapes
  • Low relief decorative panels

Retro Deco Style

Nuevo Deco, Retro Deco and Echo Deco

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Station in Oklahoma City is a fine example of the Retro Deco style of Architecture

Many architects and designers are creating new building utilizing the Art Deco principles.  These building are call retro deco, since they are retro fitting the old design principles into today’s new building designs.  This style utilizes features from the all the Art Deco styles and sometimes mixes features different Art Deco styles.  This gives new buildings a nostalgic appearance.

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”.

Common Building Types

  • theaters
  • commercial buildings
  • offices
  • government headquarters
  • apartments
  • industrial complexes

Identifiable Features

Retro Deco buildings can have some or all of the features of the other four classical Art Deco styles or it may contain features of more than one of those styles. You may even say the combination of the Art Deco features and more futuristic styles.


The five most recognized Art Deco styles include zigzag, PWA/WPA, streamline, art modern and retro Deco. Different characteristics were used to define these styles. In some cases the time period in which they were built or the determining factors for the classification. In other cases the economic funding features were a predominant reason for the classification. The retro Deco style was sort of a catchall to handle the classification of buildings that look like Art Deco became after the associated time periods for those styles.

There are also several regional styles of Art Deco that has emerged over the years. In a future posting we will discuss some of those and some categories of architecture I believe should be categorized as Art Deco styles.