American Art Deco

In a line from the 1982 film Annie, the malicious character of Miss Hannigan threatens a group of orphans by saying, “If this floor doesn’t shine like the top of the Chrysler Building, your backsides will!” In a back-handed way, the statement delightfully sums up some of the principle qualities of Art Deco design wonderfully exemplified in the Chrysler Building: a love of the shiny, clean, and new.


Interestingly, Cleveland was the birthplace of two of the most remarkable American expressions of Art Deco: Viktor Schreckengost’s Jazz Bowl, and Paul Fehér and Martin Rose’s screen featuring Muse with Violin. Along with the Chrysler Building in New York, these are among the absolute highpoints of American Art Deco. (It’s interesting to note that the screen and bowl were displayed on opposite sides of the same panel when the recently renovated America Art gallery space at the Cleveland Museum of Art first opened.)


Popular from the 1920s until about 1939, Art Deco embraced modern materials and streamlined forms, but also made bold use of decoration, which was drawn both from “primitive” sources, such as Egyptian, Aztec and African art, and from modern movements in painting, such as Cubism, Futurism, Orphism and Constructivism. The style can be seen as a reaction to the popular artistic mode of the 1890s, Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau stressed sinuous curves: Art Deco stressed straight lines and angular forms. In both Vienna and Glasgow, however, an Art Nouveau style developed that used straight forms and which is sometimes termed “Rectilinear Art Nouveau.” To some extent this form of Art Nouveau anticipated Art Deco.


The term Art Deco derives its name from the 1925 International Exposition of Modern and Decorative Art, held in Paris, which provided the first major showcase for this new artistic mode. The exhibition displayed work from France, Great Britain, Austria, Holland, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and Russia. The exposition contained thousands of displays, and the setting itself was memorable, with glass fountains created by Lalique and strikingly angular, modern buildings that were illuminated at night. Over sixteen million people viewed the exhibition, and it had an international impact. Many of the most striking objects and buildings at the exposition featured the new angular machine-like look which has become known as Art Deco.


Art Deco is often divided into three phases, Classical Moderne, Zigzag Moderne, and Streamline Moderne, although these modes aren’t always clearly distinct from each other.


Classical Moderne, which emerged in France during the early 1920s, was more restrained than other forms of Art Deco. It often drew from historical styles, such as French furniture of the 17th century, but handled elements with greater geometric clarity than the sources they were based on, and a greater emphasis on straight lines. Classical Moderne is particularly associated with the luxury arts which had long been cultivated in France, such as fashion design, furniture-making, laquer-work, metalwork, and decorative sculpture. Its imagery often featured nude women, gazelles, or other things with striking qualities of grace, aristocratic elegance, and speed. This style reached its height in the laquerware of Jean Dunand, and the metalwork of Edgar Brandt.


Zigzag Modern, the second subcategory of Art Deco, was mainly manifest in architecture, and reached its height of exuberance in American skyscrapers. It features repetitive, geometric designs, both figurative and abstract, with zigzags and angular patterns. The buildings themselves often take a ziggurat form. The most famous example of this style is the Chrysler Building in New York, designed by William Van Alen in 1929, which has dramatic gargoyles and chevron windows in shiny stainless steel, and whose spire takes on a striking stepped pyramid or ziggurat shape.


Streamline Moderne, the final subcategory of Art Deco, was mostly an American phenomenon. Because of it, Art Deco lasted longer in the United States than in Europe. After the stock market crash of 1929, American manufacturers searched for ways of making products more exciting. Such designers as Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague, Paul Frankl and Raymond Loewy came up with the idea of applying the sort of smooth teardrop shape of streamlined airplanes, ships, and motorcars to a wide variety of products and buildings, whether radios or pencil sharpeners. General characteristics of this style are rounded corners and horizontal parallel bands known as “speed stripes.” In architecture one often finds such elements as porthole windows, flat roof-tops, and extensive use of glass block.


By Henry Adams with contributions by Christina Larson