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Last Updated: February 8, 2005       Edits.

Art Deco - The Marriage of Art and Engineering in the Machine Age

In order to identify what is and what isn't  Art Deco in architecture, you need to know a few things about some of its background and typical elements.

Part 1 - Where Did The Term "Art Deco" Originate?

Much the way that some things can't be appreciate until decades later, there was a resurgence and interest in the 1960s or 70s to the architectural and cultural style of the mid- to late-1920s through the 1930s. It's my understanding that an individual named Bevis Hillier coined the term in the 1970s with particular reference to what has become generally accepted as the start of Art Deco:
The 1925 Paris World's Fair called "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes" (Decorative Arts - therein, Art Deco)

As far as architecture goes, Art Deco has been attributed to buildings from the 1910s through the 1940s (and even beyond). My major focus will be on Art Deco architecture in the United States - particularly Louisville of course. US Art Deco architecture pretty much got its start in New York City with buildings constructed from about 1928 through the 1930s.

In fact, New York City is the absolute jewel in Art Deco architecture. With the great depression starting in 1929, only the largest cities could typically fund new building projects. Some other cities that have a nice population of Art Deco architecure: Buffalo, NY; Tulsa, OK; Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; Chicago, IL, to name a few . You can even find nice photo examples of buildings from Indianapolis and Cincinnati (our nearest neighbors), but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything about Art Deco in Louisville - the exception being a site or two about Bowman Field. Until now!!

Part 2 - Why Was It Different Than Earlier Architecture?

Up until the mid- to late-1920s, most of western architecture was a copy of earlier architecture - a variety typically referred to as Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Greek Revival, Italian Renaissance Revival, Beaux Arts Classical, Italianate or similar veins. In other words, these buildings reflected many of the same design elements and features you might find on older architecture throughout history - - - Greek, Roman, Italian and Gothic classic architecture. These features were borrowed and re-used anew (neo) in the time period (mostly 1800s) prior to Art Deco.

In the late 1800s through the early part of the 1900s, style and architectural ornamentation adopted something called Art Nouveau. The style of building design didn't really change much from the neo-classic/neo-gothic/etc., but some of its ornamentation did. Also, the cultural design of the time reflected Art Nouveau. Some of it's predominant features included very feminine, sensual style floral and natural themes - intricate and elegant use of vines, tree branches and flowers in sculptures; pervasive use of peacocks and dragonflies (particularly in jewelry and household decorative items); and the portrayal of the female nude form, particularly in sculpture.

Art Deco architecture was a complete break away from older architecture. It was meant to reflect a style of its own: Modern. It embodied all that was thought of as "modern." It represented the modernity of the machine age - - - all the amenities of modern society brought on by the industrial revolution. It represented modern simplicity, strength, forward motion, achievement, technology. Gone were the remnants of fancy, traditional, classic design/ornamentation:

  • No more Ionic, Doric or Corinthian columns.
  • No more fancy classic, frilly window casings and pediments.
  • No more fancy shields/cartouches, urns, olive branches, garlands, swags, medallions and reed bundles.
In its place were:
  • Simplicity of design and understated ornamentation.
  • Buildings with vertical lines, and the birth of skyscrapers.
  • A focus on geometric and abstract ornamentation where it was used.

Part 3 - What Are Art Deco's Identifying Architectural Features?

Specific architectural features employed on Art Deco buildings included:

  • Vertical lines, then later a transition to horizontal lines (see Art Moderne/Streamline Moderne discussion below)
  • Simplicity: relatively stripped-down in terms of the facade and its features.
  • Set-back: upper levels of buildings set back in stages from the vertical to allow sun to reach the sidewalks below - due to New York City zoning laws in the early 1900s.
  • Different use of materials: combinations of stone, brick, metals (steel, aluminum, bronze, etc.), tiles, opaque glass (Vitrolite), terracotta, etc.
  • Geometric ornamentation: use of circles, diamonds, chevrons, zig-zags, triangles, pyramids, spirals, octagons, etc.
  • Frequently used symbols/motifs: sunbursts; "frozen fountain reliefs"; plant & animal life; gears; lightning bolts; relief sculptures embodying justice, truth, knowledge, industry, labor, man's strength, work ethic, achievement, commerce and bounty.
  • Decorative methods: relief sculptures (in limestone, terracotta, metal (iron & bronze)), painted murals, tile mosaics, decorative metalwork (grills, various covers, railings, door frames), flat-against-the-wall fluted columns if used.

Part 4 - What is Art Moderne and Streamline Moderne?

During the 1930s Art Deco made a slight transition into Art Moderne (also known as Streamline Moderne). Most people, including me, view it all under the Art Deco banner. Purists, however, like to be specific. The forms all pretty much overlap during the same time frame, however.

The transition primarily took the form of a change in emphasis from the vertical to an emphasis on the horizontal - to denote speed. It was during this time period that the golden age of aviation took place - air races, trans-continental flights, etc. Cars, trains and oceanliners took on a more streamline design - to actually reflect the increase in speed of that era's transportation. Some buildings reflected a horizontal, streamline, speed appearance. Pretty soon even household items reflected a streamline look - small appliances, pencil sharpeners, decorative items, furniture, etc.

Part 5 - Bottom Line: A Celebration of Man and His Modernity!

What it all represented basically boils down to this - a celebration of:

  • Modernity
  • Machine Age (printing presses, factories, rapid transportation - cars, trains, aviation, home appliances)
  • Technology (electricity, radio, invention of television, movies, telephones)
  • Achievement
  • Hard Work
  • Progress (dams, roads, public works)
  • Commerce
  • Bounty - the Fruits of Labor
  • Unlimited possibilities!

Part 6 - What Happened to Art Deco?

It's really amazing actually, that during the decade of economic depression (1930s), America was still able to look brightly to the future and let it be reflected in its cultural themes. Its buildings and its world fairs represented all that man could be - and was well on his way to being. World War II, however, took away the nations focus on future urban development and style, and redirected it to sustaining the war effort. After the war, you could still see some Art Deco elements here and there, but architecture had pretty much discarded it as old-fashioned and naively optimistic. A more "real" attitude took over, from war-learned lessons, and buildings became fairly dull and unimaginative by comparison. Brick, stone, steel and glass 'boxes' were built. Ornamentation of any sort on a building was unheard of.

Finally in the 1980s we apparently became bored with tall, lifeless skyscraper boxes and began to build with some kind of style. Here in Louisville we even have some Art Deco influences on newer structures such as the Humana Building and Aegon Tower! (both of which are/will-be featured on this site).

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