Architecture & Design

Art Deco in 9 Minutes: Why Is It The Most Popular Architectural Style? 🗽

What comes to your mind when you think of the 1920s? For most people, the 1920s conjures up images of jazz, flappers, Old Hollywood, the Great Gatsby, and the Chrysler Building in New York City. It was a time of prosperity, exorbitant spending, and entertainment that gave rise to one of the most popular decorative arts and architecture movements — known as Art Déco. 

Characterized by exquisite craftsmanship, lavish decoration, and rich materials, the style has become synonymous with the Roaring Twenties. So, what was the Art Deco movement all about and what differentiates it from other major movements? Finally, despite its popularity today, what makes Art Deco so closely associated with the 1920s? In this week's episode, we’ll dive into the history of the era and learn about Art Déco, the style that continues to inspire designers and architects around the world!

Art Déco was a decorative arts, design, and architectural style that spanned the "Roaring Twenties” and the Great Depression afterward. Although it had already appeared in Belgium and France before the First World War in the buildings of Josef Hoffmann (Stoclet Palace in Brussels, 1905-1911) and Auguste Perret (Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 1910–1913), the movement was officially introduced to the world in 1925. It had its debut at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, after which it was named Art Deco (short for Arts Décoratifs). 

After the Great War, Europe was left in ruins and confronted with a depressed economy. However, in 1925, the French were determined to forget the troubled past and inspire hope for a better and prosperous future by organizing a fair that focused on architecture and design as crucial players in recovering from wartime devastation. The rules of the exhibition required that all pieces reflect aspects of modernity. Although American artists were not present at the fair, the new style quickly became a great success in the United States, especially in the realm of architecture. And not only in the States! The movement soon spread throughout the world, becoming mainstream in countries like Great Britain, Portugal, Cuba, Russia, Indonesia, China, Australia, India, and Brazil. 

Driven by optimism, progress, and technology, Art Déco represented all that was new and progressive, favoring modern and opulent designs. It’s no surprise that the post-war society embraced it with open arms, especially the wealthy and upper-middle-class, who craved a brighter future, better entertainment, and more over-the-top luxury.  Art Déco became a popular style for theaters, cinemas, ocean liners, train stations, commercial buildings, public buildings, and the emerging skyscrapers exemplified in The Chrysler Building by William van Alen in New York City. It even made an impact on the design of jewelry, silverware, fine glass objects, fashion, advertising, theater and movie sets, cars, and everyday objects such as radios and vacuum cleaners. However, compared to the Modernist movements, Art Déco was a more decorative and symbolic expression of modernity, marked by a mixture of different styles and ornamentation. 
Many different styles and art movements influenced Art Déco. The geometric forms of Cubism and De Stijl had an important influence on the style, as did the machine-like forms of Futurism and Constructivism. Art Déco also borrowed from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aztec art, as well as Classical Antiquity. Chinese and Japanese traditional art offered artists a new source of stylistic motifs, too. Even the Ballets Russes, notably the exotic set designs by Léon Bakst, inspired designers and architects of the time. 

But what exactly does this all mean visually? Here are some visual elements that are typical of the Art Déco style. It’s a style that favors:
  • Order, symmetry, and repetition
  • Rich,two-dimensional decoration executed with exceptional craftsmanship
  • Linear and geometric designs that utilize triangular, zigzag, and chevron patterns, as well as long lines with sharp edges
  • Stylized and simplified figural decoration
  • Bold colors, driven by contrast 
  • Sleek and streamlined appearance derived from the principles of aerodynamic design
  • Low relief decorative panels
  • Facades and stripes of windows in architecture 
  • Building roofs adorned with parapets, spires, or tower-like constructions
  • Stained glass windows 
  • Polished surfaces
  • Use of expensive materials such as gilded bronze, silver, gold, ivory, ebony, crystal, and rare stones in the first phase of the movement
  • Extensive use of chrome, stainless steel, and plastic in the second phase of the Art Déco

During its heyday in the 1920s, the eclectic and sophisticated Art Déco style represented luxury and opulence, combining costly materials and fine craftsmanship with the substantial modernization of art forms seen in the past.  It was a time when the economy was booming, and nothing was cheap about this new style! People longed for speed, travel, and adventure in cars produced by Gabriel Voisin and stylish ocean lines like the famous SS Ile de France built by the French Line. They indulged in fun (and alcohol, which was illegal in the US at the time) at lavishly decorated nightclubs. People wore glamorous Paul Poiret's dresses, daring bob haircuts, and luxury jewelry from Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron, and Van Cleef & Arpels. This glamorous lifestyle is perfectly captured in the works of one of the most famous Art Deco artists, the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka. Her painting style was just as luxurious as her models, as she mostly painted portraits of the elite of the era. Her paintings are marked by clean, sensual lines, highly stylized forms, brilliant colors, and smooth textures, encapsulating the Roaring Twenties' elegance, style, and spirit. In her most famous work, the 1925 "Self-portrait in the green Bugatti," she portrayed herself as an independent woman of beauty, wealth, and fashion.

However, when the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s, Art Déco entered a phase marked by economic limitations and moderation. The style became more restrained, simplified, and austere. At that time, the US replaced France as the leader of the style. A new style in architecture called Streamline Moderne appeared, inspired by aerodynamic design. The style was focused less on verticality and more on low, horizontal structures. It was characterized by curves, long horizontal lines, smooth, polished surfaces, and the use of newly arrived and more affordable materials like chrome, stainless steel, and plastic. After World War II, the popularity of Art Déco weakened, giving way to the strictly functional and minimalist Modernism. 

Nonetheless, the style was lovingly revisited by designers and architects in later decades and still inspires as much joie de vivre in people as it did 100 years ago. Today, you can find many buildings worldwide whose interiors evoke the luxurious style of Art Déco, such as the Bar Américain in London, the famous P1 club in Munich, or the Fitzgerald's suite in New York City's Plaza Hotel. Suppose your wallet doesn't allow you to party like the Great Gatsby. In that case, you can still enjoy the Art Déco aesthetic in movies and TV series, including the British television series Poirot, adapted from the famous novels of Agatha Christie, Tim Burton's Batman, and numerous big screen and TV translations of Fitzgerald's famous novel - the latest and most extravagant of them being Luhrmann's the Great Gatsby. 
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