In the industrialized world, the early years of the twentieth century were filled with promise, fueled by prosperity, driven by technology. A new age demanded new architecture.

What, exactly is Art Deco? Let's begin with the observation that Art Deco is a label we now apply to a group of buildings and objects which, in their day, were simply "modern". Then, as now, there were many ideas as to what "modern" should look like.

The images on this site offer a selection of the period's architecture but a little history might be useful as well.

Its likely that most people got their first look at Art Deco at the movies or in pictures from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes (Paris, 1925). This event set the stylistic tone of early Art Deco; buildings based on earlier neo-classical styles but with the application of exotic motifs such as flora and fauna, fountains and chevrons, typically arranged in geometric patterns. Luxurious, elegant and dramatic, Art Deco had it all, while still being accessible to ordinary folk (and usually derided by architectural critics).

The Paris exposition serves as a useful bookmark but it wasn't the beginning. By 1925 numerous buildings incorporated elements that would find their way into the Art Deco style. Consider Eliel Saarinen's train station at Helsinki (1904-1914). With its four giant figures, each holding a globe of light, it is the very essence of Art Deco.

The Art Deco skyscraper made its debut in lower Manhattan in 1923. The Barclay-Vesey building was the first in a series of new facilities for the Bell System. It made sense that the telephone, a triumph of modern technology, should make its home in a thoroughly modern building. As would be the case with the pavilions at the Paris exposition, much of what was new about the Barclay-Vesey was on the surface. But it was quite a show, nonetheless. The lobby was awash in rich detail and low, indirect lighting. The centerpiece, a mural depicting the history of communication had, at its center, an immense golden sunburst. And in the center of the sunburst was...the telephone.
Of course, Art Deco was used for more than corporate monuments. It was chosen for shops, hotels, restaurants and countless cinemas. Schools and civic buildings of every sort were designed in a (usually more restrained) version of the style. Exceptionally impressive banks were built. Here, modernity was subordinate to other things like "security" and "fidelity".

Many people distrusted banks and with good reason. The Great Depression's effects were swift and severe. (The Empire State Building, completed in 1931 did not reach full occupancy until the 1960s, in some years generating more revenue from visits to its observation decks than from tenants). After reaching a peak in 1929-30 the era of the Art Deco skyscraper began to recede.

A consequence of the Depression was the emergence of a new architecture that really was modern. The Streamline Moderne was both a reaction to Art Deco and a reflection of austere economic times. Gone was unnecessary ornament. Sharp angles were replaced with simple, aerodynamic curves. Exotic woods and stone were replaced with cement and glass. "We are rounding the corner" quipped designer KEM Weber.

Art Deco and Streamline Moderne were not necessarily opposites. Streamline Moderne buildings with a few Deco elements were not uncommon but the prime movers behind streamline design (Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Gilbert Rohde, Norman Bel Geddes) all disliked Art Deco, seeing it as effete, falsely modern, essentially a fraud.

Whatever the esthetic pros and cons of the Streamline Moderne, the public loved it. Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair of 1933-34 was streamlined from stem to stern. The fair lifted the spirits of the weary, forecast the future and even made a little money. Streamline's clean, simple lines were perfect for everything from bakeries to bus stations.

The Streamline Moderne's finest hour was the New York World's Fair of 1939-40. Here, the "World of Tomorrow" showcased the cars, kitchens and cities of the future, along with a robot and a remarkable new device called the television.

But the future would have to wait. By the fair's second year, war had closed in and the world turned its attention elsewhere. By the war's end, the "e" in Moderne was gone and the Streamline gradually came to occupy a small subdivision of the dominant International Style.

For the most part, time has not been kind to Art Deco and Streamline Moderne architecture. The great Art Deco skyscrapers, with their intricate details, are expensive to maintain and today sit on real estate of immense value. With Streamline Moderne buildings the reverse is often the case, with many buildings in marginal neighborhoods, lacking needed maintenance, all but forgotten.

We cannot know what the world would look like had there been no wars, no Depression. I hope, however that the images on this site will allow you to make an educated guess. Thanks for visiting!

Images and text copyright (c) Randy Juster. All rights reserved.