Art Deco: as discovery, invention and fashion have created a movement
Art Deco or Arts Décoratifs originated in the 1920s, following the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes held in Paris (1925). However, it wasn’t 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 fascinating and enticing change, a reflection of the golden age in Hollywood and a widespread economic boom.
Characterized by its decadence, rich application of color and geometric shapes, the movement is dramatically influenced by the discovery of artifacts from ancient civilizations and the introduction and admiration of the automobile. A movement strongly influenced by aspects in vogue that sought to create a form of luxury modernism, one step away from more traditional architecture. He placed an emphasis on hand-made and individually designed elements, rarely mass-produced.
After Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition in 18/19th century and a period of Egyptomania, it was only with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb 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 extravagance which was quickly reflected in fashion. Rather than replicating original designs and artifacts, a new movement sought to seek strong influence from ancient works, using sumptuous colors and shapes to accent architecture for commercial spaces. It matched the opulence seen in Hollywood, a new and booming industry, and the economic prosperity of the roaring 1920s.
Are we late for an Art Deco revival?
Egyptian images such as hieroglyphs, sun rays, scarabs and pyramids have emerged everywhere, with the introduction of skyscrapers during this period to recreate the overbearing 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. It originally housed the Hoover company’s manufacturing facility, uses much of the color found in ancient art such as greens, reds, and blues, and reproduces a temple-like appearance. The entrance is framed by geometric and symmetrical shapes in glazed tiles, very similar to those of Egyptian art.
This historical romanticism didn’t just end with a fascination for 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 draws 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 facade looks like delicately patterned brocade with an interior of etched bronze panels.
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, is a magnificent example of Art Deco architecture, heavily influenced by the popularity and commercial introduction of the automobile. Its steel frame and aesthetics represent both the Chrysler automobile and the 1920s era of cars. Eagles grace the building just like a model car, and the corner ornaments have been crafted to resemble replicas of Chrysler radiator hoods. Enclosed in marble, the atrium features depictions of the workers themselves and a tale of the “age of escape”. The Chrysler building was the epitome of fashion and sought to impress its visitors with its sunburst spire and iconography.
The golden age of Hollywood corresponded to the new display of fashionable Art Deco architecture, the two became inseparable. The dawn of avant-garde cinema and the transition from silent to sound films have brought huge audiences to come and see these new and exciting films. This request created a new form of structure, the Art Deco cinema. A futuristic architecture designed solely to reflect the glamor and romance of the film itself, these structures have become a form of cinema palace.
A prime example is Grauman’s Egyptian Theater (1922), an extraordinary example of an Egyptian revival. Its lavish setting hosted the first Hollywood premiere film. A later example is the Paramount Theater (1931) in Oakland, California, one of the first buildings of its era to integrate the work of numerous creative artists into his 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 remain memorable, applying new materials such as stainless steel, aluminum and inlaid wood with dramatic effects. It represented the fashion of the time, trying to create an elegance that symbolized wealth, prosperity and refinement. Despite the disintegration of the style during World War II, Art Deco architecture remains popular today as a style and source of inspiration and remains an important part of our architectural heritage.