What Is Art Deco?
By Magazine staff | Online Only | July/August 2008
In the aftermath of World War I, with the machine age firing imaginations in America and abroad, an entirely new architectural style emerged. Called art deco, it celebrated a modern approach to traditional forms and embraced the energy and optimism of the flapper era.
Eye-opening new buildings appeared, clad in stone, concrete, terra cotta, and stainless steel—many adorned with a profusion of animal, floral, and geometric motifs. Some of the most prominent structures rose above New York City: the Chrysler Building (1930), for example, with its reimagined Gothic spire, and the Barclay Vesey Building (1927), an awe-inspiring skyscraper with lavishly decorated entrances and public spaces. (The building was damaged in the collapse of the World Trade Center.) Hotels and movie houses also became prominent deco landmarks, with ornamentation finding its way into murals and light fixtures as well as facades. Think of the colorful hotels lining Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, or the glorious excesses of Radio City Music Hall—the very essence of art deco chic.
The Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, held in Paris in 1925, showcased many of the avant-garde ideas that characterized art deco design. But exposure brought criticism: As the style gained favor with the public, it attracted the disdain of high-minded critics, who found deco's parallel lines, chevrons, and zigzag designs anything but modern. The practitioners of art deco were undeterred. Whether designing buildings, jewelry, clothing, or furniture, they were conscious of their break with the past, of creating an innovative language.
With the Great Depression, some of the florid notes began to disappear from new construction. Ornamentation gave way to a cleaner, simpler look, with horizontal masses favored over vertical forms and curved lines over straight edges. Christened art moderne—or streamline moderne, for its association with cars, planes, and high-speed trains—this new style incorporated elements of classic art deco but anticipated the trend toward modernism and the leaner, more minimalist look that was the hallmark of the International Style.
As modernism took hold, art deco fell from favor. Not until the 1970s did popular opinion swing back toward the hotels, skyscrapers, and movie palaces of the 1920s, leading to the preservation of some of our most exuberant landmarks.
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