Art Deco, short for Arts Décoratifs, is a defining style whose frenzy greatly influenced the movements in its wake, producing designs that still enamor to this day.
As a style, it is one that is widely appreciated and understood, even by the amateur enthusiast – something Charlotte Neilson attributes to the scenography of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, a British television series adapted from the famous novels. The built environment of the 1920s and 1930s, British, upper-middle class graced television screens for almost 25 years in all its Deco glory: stylized forms with curved corners, a feast of chrome and decorative motifs.
Let’s wind back, though: before the cinematic reproductions, where did it all begin? During the interwar era in Europe and France in particular – the site of the troubled Western Front – people were confronted with a depressed economy due to decreased manpower and a decline in industrial productivity. However, the French were determined to not let this troubled past (and uncertain present) stifle them, and the architecture and design world would play a key role.
In 1925, Paris hosted a world fair that heralded what would soon be known as Art Deco: the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries). It not only introduced Art Deco to the world, but also situated France as the beacon of taste.The style’s trailblazers sought to eschew historical styles in favor of progressive and modern designs. There was a noble, perhaps naive, hope that the exhibition would represent the common person; however, as might be expected, the designs sashayed into a realm of luxury goods for the wealthier elite.
French art moderne (a stylistic forerunner) featured most prominently at the Exposition, introducing the burgeoning Art Deco style to a more international audience. While Art Deco architecture and design was painstakingly concerned with modernity, it differed greatly to the later Modernist movement’s preoccupation with rational forms and technological advances. It displayed a penchant for symmetry and repetition, but was a more decorative and symbolic expression of modernity. Although united by a driving desire for modernity, Art Deco architecture, design and art was often characterized by a medley of styles and ornamentation.
Let’s take a look at 10 buildings and interiors that exemplify the Art Deco architecture movement for a more visual explanation of the distinctive style:
The Chrysler Building, New York, USA, 1930
The Art Deco skyscraper emerged in urbanizing cities around the globe. Typically featuring a tapered top to comply with setback regulations and a hint of geometric ornamentation, they had a more extravagant bend than their modern counterparts. The style wholeheartedly embraced mass production which allowed for the impressively quick construction of New York’s most prominent skyscrapers: the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building.
The latter, pictured here, soared to a record height of 1000 feet – a title it held for only 11 months before the Empire State Building rose up, leaving the smaller phallic form in its shadow. It is crowned with a stylized sunburst motif that stamps its unique place in the busy skyline.
The Empire State Building, New York, 1931
This iconic landmark held its status as the tallest building in the world for four decades until the Twin Towers surpassed its soaring height. As Mark Kingwell said, it symbolised the image America hoped to project to the rest of the world: “A land which reached for the sky with its feet on the ground.” Akin to the French motivation, these buildings were intended to reinvigorate a troubled economy that would soon give way to the Great Depression.
In 1916, a new setback regulation was put in place in New York which engendered the stepped forms that became synonymous with the Art Deco skyscrapers the world over. Less flamboyant than the oft-compared Chrysler Building, it is not without Art Deco styled ornamentation: sleek aluminium adorns the pinnacle and two sculpted eagles flank the entry.
The Times Square Building, New York, USA, 1929
While we’re on the topic of skyscrapers, it would be rude not to mention Ralph Thomas Walker, who fashioned the New York skyline with his stamp of Art Deco towers.
The distinctive and ostentatious mark of this building is undoubtedly the aluminium "Wings of Progress" crowning the pinnacle.
Florin Court, London, England, 1936
So, enough of the New York skyscrapers – let’s return for a moment to Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
Florin Court is a residential building in London, built in 1936 by Guy Morgan and Partners, and later used as the fictional residence (Whitehaven Mansions) of the protagonist Hercule Poirot for the television adaption.
The key feature is the elegant, curved, glass-and-all facade that is hemmed in by projecting wings and rendered in brick.
The Hoover Building, London, England, 1933
While we’re in London, we couldn’t bypass the Hoover Building designed by Wallis, Gilbert and Partners. It's not visible in the image above, but the building features kooky windows with a curved profile.
That’s not all that's jazzing up the facade: the color palette takes influence from Aztec and Mayan patterns that were on display at the Paris exposition.
It seems a cruel joke that this funky building is now a supermarket, and a Tesco at that! But, hey, the kids need to eat, right?
National Tobacco Company Building, Napier, New Zealand, 1933
A little old town in little old New Zealand boasts an impressive array of Art Deco buildings. The proliferation of the style within one distinct location was the result of a large earthquake that hit the region in 1931, flattening much of the built environment and killing 258 people.
In the wake of this tragedy, Art Deco, the style du jour, was employed to rebuild the city one sunburst at a time. This building by Louis Hay is one such example.
Like a peacock splaying its feathers, the entry dons the characteristic sunburst motif, and Hay couldn’t resist a dash more decadence, adorning it with roses. This building became the poster child for what was considered at the time to be the "newest city on the earth" or, as New Zealand’s Art Deco Trust puts it, "The Art Deco Capital of the World."
The Hôtel d’un Collectionneur, Paris, France, 1925
Let’s turn the reel back for a moment and return to the genesis of the style: the Exposition. The Hôtel d'un Collectionneur was a pavilion designed by Pierre Patout and is widely considered to be one of the fair’s most noteworthy projects.
The design is centred around a large oval space – the Grand Salon – from which a suite of decadent rooms, decorated by prominent French furniture maker Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, are accessed. Traditional forms were reimagined in modern ways, complemented by a rich color palette and finished with opulent ornamentation.
Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France, 1937
Another lavish Art Deco building was conceived in Paris a little later in the piece and also for a fair: the Exposition Internationale. It was designed to house two separate modern art museums, but it later fell into disrepair when the Pompidou centre assumed the role of hosting modern art exhibitions in the 1970s.
In wasn’t until 2002 that it reopened to the public following an extensive rehabilitation and modernization. The U-shape plan comprises two flanking wings connected by an open portico structure. The monumental facades are clad with limestone slabs and decorated with sculptured figures.
The Odeon Cinema, London, England, 1937
Now that we have developed an understanding of the style’s exteriors, let’s step inside and take a closer look at the distinctive qualities of Art Deco interiors. While this building, designed by Sir Robert McAlpine, remains a theatre, it suffered a rather unfortunate modernization in 1967 that saw the impressive auditorium stripped of its Art Deco grandeur.
Restoration efforts began in the ’80s, with the hope of returning the interior to its former state by reintroducing the ribbed ceiling and seating pattern. Even the faux-leopard print material covering the chairs lived to see another day!
Strand Palace Hotel, London, England, 1909
The Strand Palace Hotel, originally built in 1909, was refashioned in an Art Deco style by Oliver P. Bernard in 1930, before also falling into the hands of a misguided modernization. Luckily, the dismantled foyer was rescued by The Victoria and Albert Museum and later reconstructed and exhibited.
The limestone clad floor offsets the pink marble clad walls. Art Deco interiors often made innovative use of glass and this foyer was no exception, with columns and balustrades composed of translucent moulded glass, chrome and mirrored elements.
Now that you're done with Art Deco, check out Minimalism in 10 buildings.