Art Deco: How Discovery, Invention and Fashion Created a Movement
Art Deco or Arts Décoratifs originated in the 1920’s, following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris (1925). However, it wasn’t until the 1930’s that the movement gained momentum across both Europe and the US, broadening 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 for the desire of glamorous and alluring change, a reflection of the golden age in Hollywood and a widespread economic boom.
Characterized by its decadence, rich application of color, and geometrical shapes, the movement is dramatically influenced by the discovery of the artifacts of ancient civilizations, and the introduction and admiration of the automobile. A movement heavily influenced by aspects in vogue it sought to create a form of luxury modernism, a step away from a more traditional architecture. It put an emphasis on handcrafted and individually designed elements, rarely to be mass produced.
After Napoleons Egyptian expedition during the 18/19th century and a period of Egyptomania, it wasn’t until the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922 that Ancient Egyptian stylization began to influence modern design, in the form of architecture, furniture and jewelry. There was a frenzy, a fascination for Egyptian motifs and extravagance which was rapidly reflected in fashion. Rather than replicating original designs and artifacts, a new movement strove to seek heavy influence from ancient works, using lavish color and forms to accentuate architecture for commercial spaces. It corresponded with the opulence seen in Hollywood, a new and booming industry, and the economic prosperity of the roaring 20’s.
Are We Overdue for an Art Deco Revival?
Egyptian imagery such as hieroglyphics, sun rays, scarabs and pyramids emerged everywhere, with the introduction of skyscrapers during this period to recreate the domineering 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 Hoover company’s manufacturing plant, it uses much of the color found in the ancient art such as greens, reds, and blues and replicates a temple-like appearance. The entrance is framed with geometric and symmetrical forms in glazed tile, very similar to those found in Egyptian art.
This historical romanticism didn’t just end with a fascination with Egypt, further archaeological discoveries meant Mesoamerican and African influences saturated the movement. 450 Sutter Street (1929) is a typical example of an Art Deco structure built in the Neo-Mayan style. Ornate and highly decorative, the building derives much of its inspiration from Mayan culture and art. An inverted gold pyramid ceiling in its lobby replicates that of the interior of a Mayan temple and the façade presents itself as a delicately patterned brocade with an interior of etched bronze paneling.
In New York City Art Deco was to flourish 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, it is a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture, heavily influenced by the popularity and commercial introduction of the automobile. Its steel construction and aesthetic represents both the Chrysler automobile and the machine age of the 1920’s. Eagles embellish the building much like a model of car and the corner ornaments were made to look like replicas of the Chrysler radiator caps. Enclosed in marble the lobby presents depictions of the workers themselves and a tale of the ‘age of flight’. The Chrysler building was the epitome of fashion and sought to astound its visitors with its sunburst spire and iconography.
The golden age of Hollywood corresponded with Art Deco’s new visualization of fashionable architecture, the two became inseparable. The dawn of avant-garde cinema and a transition from silent films to sound brought huge audiences that came to see these new and exciting movies. This demand created a new form of structure, the Art Deco cinema. A futuristic architecture designed purely to reflect the glamour and romance of film itself, these structures became a form of movie palace.
An early example is Grauman’s Egyptian theatre (1922) a stunning example of Egyptian revival. Its palatial ambiance housed Hollywood’s first movie premier. A later example is the Paramount theatre (1931) in Oakland, California one of the first buildings of its era to integrate the work of numerous creative artists into its architecture. It depicts a mosaic panel on its façade of figures dancing, similar to the scenes found in Ancient Egypt.
Art Deco’s luxury and maximalism remains memorable, applying new materials such as stainless steel, aluminium and inlaid wood to dramatic effect. It represented fashion of the time, seeking to create an elegance symbolizing wealth, prosperity, and sophistication. Despite the disintegration of the style during WW2, Art Deco architecture remains popular as a style and source of inspiration today and remains an important part of our architectural heritage.