American Art · Architecture · Modernism

Glamour, Modernism, and the City that Never Sleeps: Art Deco in 1920s New York

New York City’s Art Deco at its finest – Radio City Music Hall. By UpstateNYer (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
“New York is an Art Deco city – indeed, the Deco city […] The Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center were crowning achievements of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and remain the dominant celebrities of the midtown skyline. Deco lobbies, theatres, jazz bars, restaurants, and details also hide and surprise at eye level across the city” (Berenholtz & Willis 8-9).

Here is my long-awaited (and long in general) post on Art Deco. As you can see, I ended up just posting the entire thing, long as it is, in one go. Please tell me if you like this format – if it kept you interested of if it was just too long – because I am planning to read that book on Gothic Revival I purchased a few weeks ago next, and I may make this into a series of articles on different movements.

I just finished New York Deco, and it was absolutely stunning. The book pairs photographs of New York’s Art Deco masterpieces with quotes about New York by noteworthy figures of the early twentieth century, such as Noel Coward and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The quotes make up most of the book’s text, but each photograph is also accompanied by an informative caption. The buildings in the book include Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the RCA Victor/General Electric Tower, and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, along with many equally beautiful but less famous buildings in Manhattan.

As I was reading, I kept asking myself exactly what it is that attracts me to Art Deco, because in many ways, it actually runs counter to my usual aesthetic tastes. I tend to have a complicated relationship with modernist art and architecture in general. While it can be exquisite in many of its forms, modernism almost always involves a rejection of the past that can be difficult for a passionate historian like me to accept both ideologically and aesthetically. Of course, it helps that Art Deco, along with the rest of early modernism, is now historical itself, which automatically piques my interest. In an attempt to better understand why Art Deco appeals to me the way it does, I decided to explore the style in greater depth.

From the beginning, Art Deco was anchored in a specific set of associations. It signified the modern, industrial world of the late 1910s and the 1920s, with all of its new wealth, energy, and excitement. “In architecture, ‘Deco’ burst forth at full scale around 1925, when an expanding economy and a surging stock market stimulated an unprecedented exuberance on every level, cultural and commercial. […] No more gothic ‘Cathedrals of Commerce’ or layer cakes of classicism: architects and titans of industry embraced the modern. The world’s most modern metropolis [New York] suddenly seemed raring to look the part.” (Berenholtz & Willis 8). It is no small wonder that so many of America’s most beautiful Art Deco buildings housed the corporations that ran this industry-driven world, were funded by the magnates who made their fortunes from it, or housed, fed, and entertained the nouveau riche who prospered from it.

In his American Art and Architecture, Michael J. Lewis characterizes the mood as follows: “Unlike other architectural styles, such as the Gothic Revival or Bauhaus modernism, Art Deco produced virtually no literature or theory. But then, neither did the short skirts or bobbed haircuts of the 1920s. Each belonged to the world of fashion, where change and oscillation are always the law, and well-timed novelty is always justification enough. Art Deco was a fashionable novelty, therefore, but like the short skirts of the Flappers, it was associated in the public mind with a new and liberated spirit of the age, and a rather delicious sense of rule-breaking. In fact, since the country was then engaged in stubbornly defying the alcohol ban of Prohibition (1919-33), it may be said that the entire decade was an exercise in collective and joyous rule-breaking.” (Lewis 227).

In Art Deco architecture and decorative arts, this rule-breaking involved bold colors, shiny metals, linear and geometric decoration, and exotic influences (Miller 268-269). These elements have much in common with the fine arts of the era; in both, centuries-old traditions about beauty, good taste, and the importance of naturalism and representation were being replaced with solid colors, crisp lines, and abstracted or semi-abstracted forms. Indebted as it was to the rise of industry, some Art Deco buildings featured stylized representations of industrial phenomena. The RCA-Victor/General Electric Tower (570 Lexington Ave.), for example, utilized zigzags and lightning bolt shapes to represent electricity (Berenholtz & Willis 48-51). The City Bank Farmers Trust Company Building (20 Exchange Place) has bronzed doors with reliefs depicting modes of transportation (Berenholtz & Willis 106-109). Murals were also extremely popular during this time, and many of them depicted allegorical figures or idealized industrial workers relevant to the purpose of the building.

Art Deco has also often been connected to the international mood of the post-World War I years, where the desire to disassociate with the old world order motivated a break with historical revivalism. “The war had been so lengthy, and so costly in human life and physical, social, and economic destruction, that people were determined the world must never again go to war. There was also a belief that it should be possible to construct a new, better world out of the ruins of the old. So the war and its immediate aftermath represented a break from the failed past and a move into modernity, into the future” (Miller 266). However, Art Deco did not completely do away with historical associations. The movement in fact drew heavily upon motifs from classical Greece and Roman, ancient Egypt and Meso-America, Africa, and Asia, all of which it represented in a modernist idiom (Miller 266-269, 276). Many of New York’s most famous Art Deco sculptures at Rockefeller Center depict figures from classical mythology, including Atlas and Prometheus. Other buildings, like the renowned Radio City Music Hall, are decorated with classically-inspired figures of allegorical importance to the building’s function; in Radio City’s case, three enameled metal figures by Hildreth Meiere represent theatre, dance, and music (Berenholtz & Willis 30-31). The Fred F. French Building (551 5th Ave.) is decorated with Near Eastern motifs of both geometric and figurative varieties (Berenholtz & Willis 44-47), while the Pythian Temple (135 West 70th) mimics an ancient Egyptian temple (Berenholtz & Willis 128-131). The “stepped” or pyramid shapes of skyscrapers, though brought about for the practical necessity of conforming to zoning laws, can also be said to come from several different ancient sources (Lewis 225).

Much as World War I influenced the shift away from more backward-looking styles, later events eventually contributed to Art Deco’s fall from favor. Before the 1920s were out, the United States would no longer be flying high on the cloud of endless promise but would instead find itself plunged into the Great Depression, and after that came the devastation of World War II. With its ideological underpinnings becoming increasingly out of synch with the public mood, Art Deco was replaced by newer Modernist styles that rejected even more of history, including Deco itself, in favor of greater abstraction and a preference for functionality over luxury and ornament. The excitement, optimism, and sense of limitless possibilities expressed by the Art Deco were over, but the era would gain a nostalgic romance as times gone by often do. “This was the age of the flapper and the Hollywood movie, of the skyscraper and the luxury ocean liner, the cheap car, and, in Germany, the Autobahn or specially built freeway.” (Miller 266). Art Deco’s appeal today is naturally enhanced by its associations with the excitement of the era.

The Biltmore Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island. Photo by me.
The Biltmore Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island. Photo by me.

It certainly doesn’t hurt either that many Art Deco masterpieces are as exciting, elegant, and luxurious as ever. One of my all-time favorite Art Deco buildings is the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, which I have been lucky enough to stay in twice. The hotel is absolutely beautiful all on its own, but it all the more stunning when you think about the scores of elegant ladies and dapper gentlemen who have wandered those halls, eaten in its restaurants, and danced in its ballrooms since the hotel first opened in 1922. I certainly don’t mean to imply that Art Deco’s only merit is nostalgia, but interest in historical art and architecture is always directly correlated with the appeal of the era’s associations. Revival movements are founded on exactly that premise, and the Roaring Twenties have never been short on appeal, especially with the continued popularity of books, musicals, and movies like The Great Gatsby and Chicago.

Works Cited:

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