“Good designers must always be avant-gardists, always one step ahead of the times. They should–and must–question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.” –Dieter Rams, 1980
Art Deco is a visual style that has manifested itself across the spectrum of different art forms. From architecture and painting to sculpture and the decorative arts, its unique style attempted to infuse functional objects with artistic touches. Art Deco was first announced to the world in the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. The exposition was a World’s Fair-styled spectacle lasting six months before coming to the United States the following year. It was fueled by a desire to move into the new century in step with innovation rather than being held back by nostalgia.
Art Deco was a direct response aesthetically and philosophically to the Art Nouveau style and to the broader cultural phenomenon of modernism. Art Nouveau began to fall out of fashion during World War I as many critics felt that the elaborate detail, delicate designs, and often expensive materials and production methods were ill-suited to a challenging and increasingly more mechanized modern world. While the Art Nouveau movement derived its intricate, stylized forms from nature and extolled the virtues of the hand-crafted, the Art Deco aesthetic emphasized machine-age streamlining and sleek geometry.
Combining modernist styles with fine craftsmanship, Art Deco represented luxury, glamor, exuberance, and faith in social and technological progress. With its geometric and streamlined approach, it challenged everyday viewers to find meaning and beauty in what were often unapologetically anti-traditional images and forms. With the advent of large-scale manufacturing, artists and designers wished to enhance the appearance of mass-produced functional objects; everything from clocks and ashtrays to cars and buildings.
Art Deco coalesced as a distinct manner of architecture at a time of massive growth in the great metropolis of New York City. It emerged at the end of World War I as one of the world’s great cities. Its population was increasing by the millions, spilling into new residential districts. As it grew, the city characterized in the 19th century as one of sunshine and shadow (i.e. the very rich and poor) developed a massive middle-class population, and with it a mass culture made possible by the technical marvels of the new century.
Art Deco architecture is characterized by hard-edged, often richly embellished designs, accentuated by gleaming metal accents. Many of these buildings have a vertical emphasis, constructed in a manner intended to draw the eye upward. Rectangular, often blocky forms are arranged geometrically, with the addition of rooftop spires and curved ornamental elements to provide a streamlined effect. New York skyscrapers rank among the most famous American examples, though the style was deployed in a variety of structures throughout the world.
Designed in 1928, the Chrysler Building is perhaps considered one of the most iconic and ubiquitous examples of Art Deco. The work of architect William Van Alen, its stainless steel spire with a scalloped base make it instantly recognizable. Art Deco was also the design choice for movie theaters of the era, such as Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Furthermore, the style permeated people’s personal lives in its effects on furnishings, textiles, and transportation.
The modern American Buildings owe just as much, however, to the circumstances of their own time and place. The influence of New York’s revolutionary 1916 zoning resolution cannot be overstated. Designed to ensure adequate light and air for surrounding streets and buildings, the new law helped shape skyscraper bulk for half a century, virtually mandating buildings that fill half a city block at their base, then taper inward via mathematically calculated setbacks, before rising into the skyline as slender towers.
Art Deco fell out of fashion during the years of World War II in Europe and North America, with the austerity of wartime causing the style to seem ever gaudy and decadent. Metals were salvaged to use toward constructing armaments, as opposed to decorating buildings or interior spaces. Furnishings were no longer considered status objects. Further technological advances allowed for cheaper production of basic consumer items, driving out the need and popularity of Art Deco designers.
A movement that in many respects sought to break away from the past, has now become a nostalgic, fondly remembered classic. Since the 1960s, there has been a steady, continued interest in the style. Echoes of Art Deco can be seen in some modern designs, which carry forward the streamlined aesthetic and revisit the clean simplicity of the art style.