Classic American Style: Art Deco

Classic American Style: Art Deco

Anna Hoffman
Jul 13, 2011

American Art Deco was a melting pot style, a mixture of French luxury, international exoticism, and authentic American consumerism. Associated with the efficiency of the machine age, American pieces referenced cars, speedboats and skyscrapers, among other modern marvels. Fashionable from the 1920s until the Second World War, the style helped define the architecture of American cities, and it also helped move merchandise during the Great Depression. Let's take a look at this classic American style.

Art Deco began around 1910 in France, where it was characterized by modern luxury, neoclassical elegance, and exoticism. It reached its apex there in 1925, with an international exhibition that inspired many American designers to adapt this style to American tastes.

But while France was clinging to its glorious history as the producer of the finest-quality handcrafted furniture, America was a new-moneyed upstart in the thick of the Roaring Twenties. Unencumbered by France's history, Americans could cut highways across their land and fill their cities with brand new skyscrapers. Looking for a visual vocabulary to represent the dynamism of the era, designers turned to a playful, angular geometry that modernized ancient motifs like Mayan ziggurats, Greek gods, Gothic gargoyles.

Once the Great Depression hit, American Art Deco shifted focus away from these ancient motifs and toward the future. By the '30s, American Art Deco had become dominated by the Streamline style, which used things like visual simplicity and automotive styling to represent speed and modernity. In the midst of a terrible era, speed was not just a literal symbol of modern transportation, but a figurative symbol of optimistic forward motion, of getting to 'tomorrow' quicker.

American Art Deco is sometimes known as Streamline Moderne or Depression Modern. It combined the modern and the decorative. Today, it is easier to find Art Deco architectural elements than furniture, but you can recognize the style's legacy in the curve of an armchair or the line of a cocktail shaker. In fact, you can often find American Art Deco bar carts and cocktail sets at antique shops, thanks to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 that forever linked the style to cocktail culture.

Defining qualities:

  • Repeated or overlapping geometric forms: triangles, zig-zags, rectangles, etc.
  • Stylized forms and figures, like Classical gods or flowers
  • The use of metal, particularly steel
  • Rounded edges
  • Speed lines and other decorative horizontal lines meant to recall automobile, oceanliner or locomotive detailing
  • References to skyscrapers
  • Simple, basic forms

  • House Tour: Jeremy's Tinseltown Time Capsule (amazing wallpaper!)
  • Art Deco Bar Carts
  • Howard Lawson Art Deco Apartments
  • Quick History: Art Deco

  • Images:
    1 The Chrysler Building (1930) by William Van Alen, via Travel Through North America
    2 The Fuller Building (1928-29) by Walker & Gillette, via Art Deco Buildings by David Thompson
    3 Miami's South Beach, built in the 1930s, via HGTV Front Door
    4 Cigarette Lighter by Ronson, c. 1925, at the Victoria & Albert Museum
    5 Table lamp by Donald Deskey, 1927, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
    6 Raymond Loewy in his design for a modern office, 1934, via pragmatos
    7 Club chair and ottoman by Paul Frankl, 1936, via Christie's
    8 "Manhattan" Cocktail Set by Norman Bel Geddes, 1937, at the Met
    9 "Patriot" Radio by Norman Bel Geddes, 1939, at the Met
    10 Walter Dorwin Teague's Texaco stations, designed in 1937, via The Digital Deli Too

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