Art Deco: how discovery, invention and fashion created a movement
Art Deco or Decorative Arts was born in the 1920s, following the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (1925). However, it was not until the 1930s that the movement gained momentum in both Europe and the United States, expanding Art Deco to cover all elements of decorative art, including furniture, interior design, jewelry and architecture. Its popularity stems from its unique origins. Rather than a design movement driven by political or philosophical forces, it was created out of a desire for glamorous and seductive change, a reflection of the Golden Age in Hollywood and a generalized economic boom.
Characterized by its decadence, rich application of color and geometric forms, the movement is significantly influenced by the discovery of artifacts from ancient civilizations, as well as the introduction and admiration of the automobile. A movement heavily influenced by fashionable aspects, it sought to create a form of luxury modernism, set apart from more traditional architecture. It emphasizes handcrafted and individually designed elements, rarely mass-produced.
After Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition during 18/19and century and a period of Egyptomaniait is only to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 that the stylization of ancient Egypt began to influence modern design, in the form of architecture, furniture and jewelry. There was a frenzy, a fascination with Egyptian motifs and an extravagance that soon filtered into fashion. Rather than reproducing original designs and artifacts, a new movement strove to seek out a strong influence from older works, using lavish colors and shapes to accentuate the architecture of commercial spaces. This matched the opulence seen in Hollywood, a burgeoning new industry, and the economic prosperity of the Roaring Twenties.
Are we overdue for an Art Deco revival?
Egyptian imagery such as hieroglyphs, sunbeams, scarabs and pyramids emerged everywhere, with the introduction of skyscrapers during this period to recreate the towering presence of the pyramids themselves. The Hoover Building (1932) in west London is a typical example of Art Deco architecture heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian themes. Originally housing the manufacturing plant of the Hoover Company, it uses much of the color found in ancient art such as greens, reds and blues and replicates the look of a temple. The entrance is framed by geometric and symmetrical shapes in glazed tiles, very similar to those found in Egyptian art.
This historical romanticism did not just end with a fascination with Egypt, other archaeological discoveries meant Mesoamerican and African influences saturated the movement. 450 Sutter Street (1929) is a typical example of an Art Deco building constructed in Neo-Mayan style. Ornate and highly decorative, the building draws much of its inspiration from Mayan culture and art. An inverted golden pyramid-shaped ceiling in its lobby replicates that of a Mayan temple interior, and the facade is presented as intricately patterned brocade with an etched bronze paneled interior.
In New York, Art Deco flourished in another form, the skyscraper. The Chrysler Building (1930) designed by architect William Van Alen for Walter P. Chrysler, the head of the Chrysler corporation, is a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture, heavily influenced by the popularity and commercial introduction of the automobile. Its steel construction and the aesthetic represents both the Chrysler automobile and the machine age of the 1920s. The eagles adorn the building much like a model car, and the corner ornaments were designed to look like replica Chrysler radiator caps. Surrounded by marble, the lobby features depictions of the workers themselves and a tale of the ‘flight age‘. The Chrysler Building was the epitome of fashion and sought to amaze its visitors with its spire and sun-shaped iconography.
The Golden Age of Hollywood corresponded to the new fashionable visualization of architecture by Art Deco, the two became inseparable. The dawn of avant-garde cinema and a transition from silent films to sound attracted huge audiences who came to see these exciting new films. This request creates a new form of structure, the Art Deco cinema. Futuristic architecture designed solely to reflect the glamor and romance of the film itself, these structures have become a form of movie palace.
A first example is Grauman’s Egyptian Theater (1922) a striking example of Egyptian revival. Its palatial ambience hosted Hollywood’s first movie premiere. A later example is Paramount Theater (1931) in Oakland, California, one of the first buildings of its day to incorporate the work of many creative artists into its architecture. It depicts a mosaic panel on its facade of dancing figures, similar to scenes found in ancient Egypt.
The luxury and maximalism of Art Deco remains memorable, applying new materials such as stainless steel, aluminum and inlaid wood to dramatic effect. It represented the fashion of the time, seeking to create an elegance symbolizing wealth, prosperity and sophistication. Despite the disintegration of the style during World War II, Art Deco architecture remains popular as a style and source of inspiration today and remains an important part of our architectural heritage.