The story of Art Deco occurs against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties in the U.S. and a scarred Europe recovering from World War One. While the U.S. wasn’t faced with rebuilding after the war, it did have to rebuild its economy after the Great Depression of 1929.
Art Deco is a form of Modernism that flourished in the United States and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The origins of Art Deco began two decades earlier in Paris. “La Societe des artistes decorateurs” or the Decorative Artists Society was founded following the Universal Exposition of 1900. Early members, including architect Hector Guimard, believed in the importance of France’s decorative arts and marketing their achievements for business purposes. These artists also displayed their creations at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art in Paris in 1925.
The Decorative Artists Society inspired the name “Art Deco,” but the term did not become popular until the publication of “Art Deco of the 20’s and 30’s” by Bevis Hillier in 1968.
A founder of the Decorative Artists Society, Hector Guimard (1867-1942) was a French architect famous for designing modern facades for the entrances to Paris Metro stations during the Art Nouveau movement (1890-1905). His style was curvilinear, characteristic of Art Nouveau.
Among many examples, two American buildings represent Art Deco—New York’s Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall. The Chrysler Building was designed by architect William Van Alen between 1928 and 1930. He initially worked for William Reynolds (cigarette tycoon), but his plan was later acquired by Walter P. Chrysler (automotive tycoon). For a short time, this 77-story skyscraper dominated the Manhattan skyline and enjoyed fame as the world’s highest building.
Radio City Music Hall is a landmark in New York City’s theatre district. The site was leased by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and was not ideal for his dream to construct a new Metropolitan Opera House because of the 1929 stock market collapse. In a partnership with Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and S.L. “Roxy” Rothafel, Rockefeller constructed the Radio City Music Hall. An unknown designer named Donald Deskey, specialist in carpets and furniture, got the job of decorating the new entertainment hall. His Jazz Age furniture theme is an extant example of Art Deco design.
Other Art Deco style furniture adorns the lobbies of the boutique hotels of South Beach in Miami, Florida. This hotel district was refurbished in the 1980s and has become a hub of international culture. When you walk into a hotel in the Art Deco district, the interior design and the furnishings are true to Art Deco style.
Another memorable example of Art Deco architecture in the Big Apple is the 10-building complex of Rockefeller Center. This massive complex takes up six square blocks between Manhattan’s Avenue of the Americas and Fifth Avenue, home of world class shopping. Rockefeller Center is also the home of the annual Christmas tree lighting in New York City.
A three-dimensional example of Art Deco is found in the glass creations of the Frenchman, Rene Lalique. While he was a classic artist of Art Nouveau, he produced a special series of Art Deco glasses and bowls with geometric, floral, and stylized bird decorations.
The Art Deco style is evident in many places in the U.S. of the 21st century, especially in buildings and homes which retain the authentic decor of the 1920s and 1930s.