The word art deco derives from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris. The show was organized by an association of French artists known as, La Societe des Artistes Decorateurs (society of decorator artists), led by its founders Hector Guimard (1867-1942), Eugene Grasset, Raoul Lachenal, Paul Follot, Maurice Dufrene, and Emile Decour, some of whom were previously involved in Art Nouveau.
The Art Deco style, adopted by architects and designers around the world, spanned the “Roaring Twenties“, the Great Depression of the early 1930s, and the years leading up to the Second World War. It suffered a decline in popularity during the late 30s and early 40s, when it began to be seen as too gaudy and ostentatious for wartime austerity, after which it quickly fell out of fashion. The first resurgence of interest in Art Deco occurred in the 1960s – coincident with the movement’s affect on Pop Art – and then again in the 1980s, in line with growing interest in graphic design. The style appeared in a number of jewellery and fashion ads.
Employing new building materials that were manipulated into stepped, radiating styles that contrasted sharply with the fluid motifs of Art Nouveau, Art Deco architecture represented scientific progress, and the consequent rise of commerce, technology, and speed. This, together with its image as a modern, opulent style, made Art Deco designs especially suitable for the interiors of cinemas, ocean liners such as the Queen Mary, and the architecture of train stations across the United States. It endured throughout the Depression due to the practicality and simplicity of its design, and its suggestion of better times ahead.
The structure of Art Deco is founded on mathematical geometric shapes which drew equally on Greco-Roman Classicism, the faceted architectural forms of Babylon, Assyria, Ancient Egypt, and Aztec Mexico – notably their ziggurats, pyramids and other monumental structures – and Machine Age streamline designs from aviation, the radio, and the skyscraper. In particular, Art Deco designs are characterized by trapezoidal, zigzagged, and triangular shapes, chevron patterns, stepped forms, sweeping curves and sunburst motifs – the latter being visible in a number of separate applications, including: shoes, car radiator grilles, the Radio City Music Hall auditorium, and the spire of the William van Alen Chrysler Building (1928-30) in New York.
New materials were also much in evidence, such as aluminum, stainless steel, plastics, lacquer and inlaid wood. And while continuing the use of high quality Art Nouveau materials, such as moulded glass, horn, and ivory, Art Deco also introduced exotic items like shark-skin, and zebra-skin.
In classic Art Deco, rectangular blocky forms were often arranged in geometric fashion, then broken up by curved ornamental elements. But always the aim was a monolithic appearance with applied decorative motifs.
Art Deco materials included stucco, concrete, smooth-faced stone, and Terracotta. Steel and aluminum were often used along with glass blocks and decorative opaque plate glass (vitrolite).
Art Deco designers adorned flat roofs with parapets, spires, or tower-like constructs to accentuate a corner or entrance. Decorative curiosities such as chimneys were added to further enhance the design.
Windows usually appear as punctured openings, either square or round. To maintain a streamlined appearance for the building, they were often arranged in continuous horizontal bands of glass. Wall openings are sometimes filled with decorative glass or with glass blocks, creating a contrast of solid and void forms while admitting daylight. Many large apartment buildings found aesthetic success with decorative embossed spandrel panels placed below windows. The Kennedy-Warren Apartments is an example.
Doorways are sometimes surrounded with elaborate pilasters and pediments, and door surrounds are often embellished with either reeding (a convex decoration) or fluting (a concave decoration). The quality and extent of the decorative motifs vary by project and designer.
Many cities with building projects completed during the period 1927-1935 used Art Deco design plans, of which the following is a short selection.
The city of Mumbai in India has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami. One of the finest is the New India Assurance Building (completed 1936).
The art deco style, which above all reflected modern technology, was characterized by smooth lines, geometric shapes, streamlined forms and bright, sometimes garish colours. Initially a luxury style (a reaction against the austerity imposed by World War I) employing costly materials like silver, crystal, ivory, jade and lacquer, after the Depression it also used cheaper and mass-produced materials like chrome, plastics, and other industrial items catering to the growing middle class taste for a design style that was elegant, glamorous and functional.