What Is Art Deco Architecture?

art deco architecture
kolderal / Getty Images

The term ‘Art Deco’ refers to a design period that was popular in the United States and Europe in the 1920s and '30s. This short-lived movement influenced fashion, art, homewares, and building styles throughout the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. As such, the aesthetic was careful to balance opulence and practicality. 

Art Deco architecture represents a style of building that is sleek, but not minimal. The architects of the time were inventive in their approach to design. They sought to create structures that were fresh, modern, and unlike previous revivalist styles. Art Deco buildings are unmistakable and represent an era that was at the center of the Machine Age. 

History 

The Art Deco style was seen throughout Paris in the early 1920s but made its first official appearance in 1925 at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. This design show was held in Paris and featured the work of several promising young designers. The movement was eventually named after this event. 

After this event, the design aesthetic took off. Paris is home to many early examples of Art Deco architecture. In the United States, the American Radiator Building is the earliest Art Deco building from 1924.

It wasn’t until the early 1930s that famous architects built several other now-famous Art Deco buildings in American cities. American skyscrapers, in particular, represented the most lavish and impressive examples of the style. 

The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and the Chrysler building are all examples of Art Deco architecture in NYC. 

Characteristics

Identifying an Art Deco building is not difficult, but it is helpful to be familiar with some of these common elements. 

  • Modern and traditional building materials. Art Deco buildings utilized materials like stucco, terracotta, decorative glass, chrome, steel, and aluminum. 
  • Ornate, geometric detailing. Various motifs and ornamental details were applied to a building. Some common Art Deco motifs include chevrons, pyramids, stylized sunbursts or florals, zig-zags, and other geometric shapes. 
  • Consistent detailing. A designer or architect would include similar Art Deco elements on both the exterior and interior so that each building carried out a consistent theme.
  • Bold use of contrasting colors. Bright, opulent colors are synonymous with the Art Deco period. Buildings incorporated stark colors like black and white or gold and silver to create contrast. 
  • Fragmented shapes. Many facades were created using vertical lines that were angular and pointed in an upward and outward direction. These triangular shapes were capped off with a series of steps that eventually come to a point. 
  • Decorative, geometric windows. Windows and doors were decorated with geometric designs. The windows could be glass block or a series of opaque glass inserts and were often positioned in a long, horizontal row. 
  • Parapets and spires. Corners of buildings were often decorated with tower-like structures that would make a simple square building seem more opulent. 

Interesting Facts

This era spanned two distinct periods. 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Art Deco era is the period it embodied. On the one hand, you have a design period that personifies luxury, wealth, and the rise of industry. The latter part of the era encompasses the Great Depression, which is in stark contrast with the preceding period. Once the Great Depression hit, designers wanted to implement lavish Art Deco styles, but they had to do so in a smart, practical, and budget-friendly way. 

Builders adapted the style to more economical apartment buildings and the like. More moderate designers were able to build basic structures and use machine-made ornamentation relatively inexpensively. Decorative styles were reserved for the most prominent and visible parts of a building, which also saved money. 

The quality and extent of decoration vary widely in Art Deco architecture. Much of this detailing depends on the budget, the prominence of the builder, and the quality of the build. 

Art Deco architecture is not a revival style. 

Early Art Deco designers were clear of their intention. They wanted to create a style that no one had seen before. Unlike Tudor Revival or Classical Revival, the Art Deco movement was an aesthetic that hadn’t been seen in buildings before. 

However, many design elements were inspired by preceding movements or cultures. Art Deco motifs take a creative license from Native American, Egyptian, and Classical art forms. 

Not many homes were built in the Art Deco style. 

The Art Deco style was predominately used in buildings and commercial spaces. As such, there aren’t too many homes that were built in the Art Deco style. However, some people would incorporate Art Deco elements into their pre-existing homes.

For instance, traditional, wood-trimmed entryways were replaced with simple arches during the 1930s. Lighting fixtures and decor were replaced with more sleek, Art Deco options. People chose Art Deco-inspired paint colors, and tile choices were selected to match this more modern trend. 

Art Deco design focuses on symmetry and sharp angles. 

Unlike Art Nouveau architecture, the Art Deco movement was much less whimsical and way more practical. The design aesthetic focused on new ways to present traditional shapes. You’ll see a lot of unusual takes on symmetry and geometric shapes in Art Deco architecture.

Art Deco buildings predate modern architecture. 

The Art Deco movement lasted until around 1940, which is when many famous modern designers were starting to make headway with Modern architecture. In this way, Art Deco architecture can be seen as a transitional period between traditional styles like Victorian and more modern design styles. 

In summary, Art Deco architecture represents a transitional period between traditional and modern approaches to building. The period spans between 1925 - 1940 and is an easily recognized style in prominent American city buildings.