Embracing Technology and Mass Production
Like Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement before it, Art Deco was the product of an attempt to find something utterly modern. This style was a direct departure from the organic motifs featured in Art Nouveau. Art Deco advocated instead developed designs that embraced industry and exuded a faith in the technological and social constructs of the day. Proponents of Art Deco wanted to demonstrate glamour and luxury as a way to announce the dark days were over and there was a new prosperity. They were inspired by mass production, as well as by a cultural shift. Prohibition had ended and girls were making feminist statements by cutting their hair and dressing in shorter skirts. Morale was high and the future looked bright.
Art Deco emphasized luxury and newness with reflective materials like chrome, steel, and glass. Geometric patterns with strong lines and clear symmetry accented both interior and exterior surfaces. It was stylish and current, bucking revivalist tendencies in architecture to draw inspiration from the moment. The style first appeared at L’Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs in Paris in 1925.
Cubism made an impact on several forms of architecture. Cubist artworks try to show paintings from multiple viewpoints. To do so, the objects depicted are broken up and reassembled. Eyes on a single face might look slightly different from each other, for example. The style was developed largely by Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and Georges Braque (1882–1963). Architects were interested in the way it emphasized simple design and abstract presentation of objects without classical reference.
Art Deco as American Style
American architects believed Art Deco to be an important way to inject character into the American skyscraper. The Chrysler Building (1928–1931) is a magnificent example of Art Deco with its shiny top of stainless steel glinting in the sun and tiered arches lined with sunbursts on the prominent 185-foot tower top, or spire.
Walter Chrysler, founder of Chrysler Motors Corporation, wanted to build a symbol of his company’s prosperity that would be recognizable all over the city. He asked architect William Van Alen (1883–1954) to build something even taller than the Eiffel Tower. When it appeared there was a chance that the building might be outrivaled by a bank tower on Wall Street, Van Alen quietly built the famous 185-foot spire inside the building. When it was done, he hoisted it up through the roof, shocking everyone.
The building takes a streamlined approach to form with geometric patterns and stylized ornaments such as the stern-looking steel eagles that look out over the top of the building like gargoyles. These eagles mimic Chrysler’s hood ornaments. The spire glints with its stainless steel and triangular shapes punched into the aluminum arches that form the spire. The shaft is glazed brick with dark trim. The frieze is a series of simulated hubcaps—nods toward the Chrysler business. The interior is luxurious with red-hued Moroccan marble and exotic wood inlay decorating all the doors, including those of the thirty-two elevators.
Features of Art Deco Architecture
Bold geometric shapes
Clean, streamlined forms
Art Deco as a Revival Style
A revival of Art Deco known as Streamline Moderne occurred during the Great Depression and ended before World War II. Miami, a fairly new American city that was already experiencing a building boom, was in need of a look. This second wave of Art Deco took strong roots there. Streamline Moderne was more subdued than the original Art Deco, tempered by the economic downturn of the Great Depression. It was less decorative but used bright pastels, and ornamentation included glass blocks, floral images, and ship motifs. Some people even called it Tropical Deco. Whatever its name, there was a certain optimism to the look. Common features included rounded edges, porthole windows like those that appear on ships, stepped roofs, and neon lighting.
Streamline Moderne in Transportation
Streamline Moderne was not just an architecture style. It was also used in automobile design, ships, and many household appliances such as refrigerators. It was influenced by modern aerodynamic principles.
Beginning in 1929, the Great Depression brought an end to the exotic, luxurious ornamentation of Art Deco, replacing it with a more austere, streamlined style. In light of the financial crisis, the original Art Deco style exuded a decadence that seemed frivolous and inappropriate.