Art Deco


Art Deco, style popular in the 1920s and 1930s, used primarily in the design of buildings, furniture, jewelry, and interior decor. Art deco is characterized by sleek, streamlined forms; geometric patterns; and experiments with industrial materials such as metals, plastics, and glass. The term art deco is a shortening of the title of a major Paris design exhibition held in 1925, Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts), where the style first became evident. Art deco quickly gained hold in the United States, where it reached the height of its achievement in architecture, especially in New York City's soaring skyscrapers of the late 1920s and early 1930s such as the Chrysler, Daily News, and Empire State buildings. Because many art deco buildings went up during a period of economic collapse known as the Great Depression, the style is sometimes known as depression moderne.

Art deco grew out of a conscious effort to simplify the elaborately curved shapes and plantlike motifs of art nouveau, the prevailing style in architecture and design at the beginning of the 20th century. Art deco retained the tendency of art nouveau toward abstraction and repetition of forms but moved away from the shapes and motifs of the older style.

The clean lines, streamlining, and symmetry of art deco designs reflect the increasing importance of industrial products in everyday life, and a corresponding interest among modern artists and designers in the beauty of machinery. Art deco objects were usually not mass-produced, yet many of them possess qualities belonging to mass production: simplicity, unvaried repetition, and geometric patterns. Designers began to look at industrial products less as utilitarian objects than as inspiration for art.

Art deco was also a product of the fertile artistic exchange between Paris, France, and New York City that occurred after World War I (1914-1918). American artists, writers, and musicians flocked to Paris after the war and brought with them a fresh approach to creative work. The French, who grounded their art in a firm grasp of tradition, absorbed something of the American spirit of improvisation. Later, American architects who had trained at Paris's École des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) brought European influence to the design of New York's many art deco skyscrapers.


The first designers to contribute to the creation of art deco were French fashion designer Paul Poiret and French jewelry and glass designer René Lalique. Echoing the experimental glass of American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, Lalique's glass designs of the 1910s featured continuous, flowing lines and subtle, unusual colors. The colorful and original designs created by artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso for the Ballets Russes dance company in Paris were an additional influence on the emerging art deco style. Art deco designers also admired and borrowed from ancient art that was being unearthed by archaeologists at the time, especially the treasures of the ancient Egyptian king Tutankhamun (exhibited in Paris in 1922) and Maya and other Mesoamerican art.

At the 1925 exposition several French masters unveiled work that created an international stir. Elegant inlaid wood furniture by Jacques Émile Ruhlmann, functional lacquerwork by Jean Dunand, silver jewelry by Jean Puiforcat, and glass vases by Lalique were hailed for their modernity and original lines. Ruhlmann designed a series of rooms for the exposition that had a far-reaching effect on American and European taste. Lalique later created a similarly streamlined decorative scheme for the luxurious French ocean liner Normandie. Both designs displayed clean abstract lines in metal, porcelain, enamel, and exotic woods, evoking what was viewed at the time as the speed and grace of machinery in motion.


In architecture, the crowning achievements of art deco occurred not in Europe but in the United States. A trio of New York City skyscraper specialists set the stage for an explosion of creative activity during the 1920s and early 1930s. Architects Raymond M. Hood, Ralph Walker, and Ely Jacques Kahn produced many of the city's landmark tall buildings and inspired other designers with their innovations in form, materials, and decoration. A major influence on their work was a never-executed design by Finnish-born American architect Eliel Saarinen that he entered in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Building competition. Although his proposal did not win, it helped popularize the use of setbacks, the stepped building profile that became associated with so many art deco skyscrapers. New York's 1916 building and zoning ordinances also encouraged the use of setbacks in tall buildings to enable sunlight to penetrate to the canyonlike streets of the city.

The major art deco skyscrapers were built largely between the end of World War I in 1918 and the mid-1930s. This bubble of economic activity, most of it set in motion before the economic hardship of the 1930s, encouraged innovation in tall buildings. Hood set the standard for much of future skyscraper design with his designs for the sleek, black-and-gold American Radiator Building (1924); the towering New York Daily News Building (1930); and the McGraw-Hill Building (1931), accented with alternating bands of windows and green tile that gradually darken as they ascend. He also contributed to Rockefeller Center (1933, with several later additions), which was the largest design effort in New York City. Hood accentuated the vertical sweep of the New York Daily News Building by setting windows within indented vertical panels to create an unobstructed band from the base of the building to the top.

The buildings of Ralph Walker are made up of massive geometric forms that almost seem sculpted out of clay. Walker's Barclay-Vesey Telephone Building (1923-1926), situated on a trapezoidal site, features towers cut into faceted blocks. Kahn, on the other hand, provided his Two Park Avenue Tower (1927) with delicate ornamental details inside and out, using a wide range of materials including metal, glass, brick, and several colors of tile. This colorful design, in turn, contrasted with his largely white Squibb Building (1930). Other significant art deco designs in New York City include the Chrysler Building (1930) by American architect William Van Alen, the Empire State Building (1931) by the firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, and the exuberant interiors of Radio City Music Hall (1932) by American designer Donald Deskey.


As the 1930s progressed, American art deco became increasingly identified with the imagery of technology and speed: It emphasized the use of modern glossy materials, smooth seamless surfaces, and aerodynamic horizontal lines. This sleeker version of art deco, known as streamlined moderne, supplanted the detailed geometric patterns of early art deco.

American designer Donald Deskey created interior furnishings and fixtures using new materials such as Bakelite (a type of plastic), chrome-plated metal, linoleum, and glass bricks. American designer Raymond Loewy brought art deco into people's homes with his streamlined design for the Coldspot refrigerator. Hollywood added to the style's popularity by featuring glamorous moderne interiors in motion pictures of the 1930s.

The art deco style remained influential well into the 1940s. Like many design styles that are now considered classic, art deco reflected a key moment in modern cultural history - the age of jazz, streamlined cars, elegant costumes, and those classic early skyscrapers.

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