Eras of Art Deco in the USA | Hollywood Deco | Comic Book Art Deco | Abstract Art in Design | Recommended Reading

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Eras of Art Deco in the USA

Art Deco buildings in the USA went through three modes.

Skyscraper Deco. This began in 1923; the main activity was in 1927-1931. The style originated in New York City, but soon spread to most major US cities.

This featured skyscrapers with stepped tops, also known as ziggurats. The building top is a delirious conglomeration of rectangular solids, arranged into a complex pattern. Sometimes the solids have sides cut off at a 45 degree angle, giving an octagonal effect. The tops also sometimes use a two color or two material effect, say alternating between copper and stone. There is also a use of repeated thin relief pillars on the surface, rhythmically repeated.

A variant of the Skyscraper style can be seen in some large structures of the era, such as hospitals and bath houses. These were made of large rectilinear cubes of material, like the tops of the skyscrapers. But they were spread out over wide areas, instead of being vertically organized like the skyscraper tops.

Many movie palaces were constructed in this era. The exterior of the Civic Theatre in Auckland, New Zealand is in the Skyscraper Deco style. Its interior is pure movie palace, with statues of elephants and pagan gods.

The Public Deco Style. This was contemporary with the skyscraper style: 1927-1931. It was used for structures that were open to the public, such as churches and train depots, and for engineering constructions, such as dams and bridges, which also could be seen as civic in nature.

Key features:

Hoover Dam is the masterpiece of Public Deco. Much of Tulsa's public architecture is in this style. So is "The Shrine of the Little Flower" in Royal Oak near Detroit. A related style was used for the BBC Broadcast House in England, by Val Meyers.

The Moderne Deco Style. This flourished during 1935-1941, at which point new building in the US was cut off by World War II. It was used for commercial buildings, both places of residence, such as hotels, motels, and apartment buildings, movie theaters, department stores and drug stores, and for small factories and warehouses. These buildings tended to be smaller and more commercial than those of the earlier era. Moderne Deco buildings look like Deco objects such as clocks, writ large. They have rounded corners, and aim for a streamlined effect. The corners are cylinders that abruptly transition to planar walls. Circular windows can look like portholes on a ship; they often combine with the streamlining to give a nautical look. Glass brick windows are frequent. So are large window areas made up of regularly repeated units of smaller rectangular windows. Tiled facades are common. So are horizontal bands of jutting material, which also add to the nautical look. Vertical bands are common as well. There are often towers, sometimes using small spheres as part of their construction. Color is often brilliant in these buildings. Waterfall effects sometimes flow down the fronts of Moderne Deco works.

Smaller structures, such as gas stations and diners, also are part of the Moderne Deco era, and partake of many of its characteristics.

Miami Beach's Deco buildings are largely in a style closely linked to the Moderne Deco style. They show some common characteristics not found elsewhere, but their style is contemporaneous with and closely related to the Moderne Deco style. Miami Beach's Deco tends to be in brilliant pastel colors. They also tend to be more purely box shaped and symmetrical than the irregularly shaped Moderne Deco buildings elsewhere.

Knapp's Department Store in my home town of Lansing, Michigan is an acknowledged classic of the Moderne Deco style.

Quite a few Deco buildings were constructed in 1946-1955, the years after World War II. Not surprisingly, their style seems to be a direct continuation of the Moderne Deco of the pre war years. These buildings tend to be a bit more confident looking somehow than prewar Deco, and also a bit boxier and less purely elegant. Perhaps I am just reading into things, knowing the post war confidence that swept through America.

Movie theaters constructed in the Moderne Deco style often had elaborate marquees and signs. The recent, huge Star Theater Southfield (1997), in Southfield Michigan near Detroit, one of the world's largest motion picture complexes, has a marquee that recalls this era.

Hollywood Deco

While Skyscraper Deco and the Public Deco Style building styles were flourishing in real life (1927-1931), Art Deco interior design also became a craze in Hollywood films. The peak years of Hollywood Deco started nearly exactly the same time as the American building spree, with Cedric Gibbons' sets for Our Dancing Daughters (1928) kicking off the craze.

Hollywood Deco is mainly interior design, especially furniture. This interior design is closely based on the Parisian style of the mid 1920's, although there are many modifications. (So is the real life interior decoration of Donald Deskey, which also flourished in 1928-1932.) The bringing in to Hollywood of a large group of designers would soon be followed by a large group of Broadway entertainers, with the transition over to sound, as well as a slew of classical composers to write film scores. Hollywood Deco lasted through the end of the 1930's.

Art Deco seems to have influenced interior design in the futuristic city in the German science fiction film Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).

During the 1980's, old Art Deco buildings were used as backgrounds for television and films:

Comic Book Deco

Art Deco was widely used in science fiction comic books in the 1950's and 1960's to depict futuristic cities on other planets: Such artists often created Deco interiors, furniture and machinery as well. While this architecture was purely imaginary, consisting purely of illustrations in a comic book, it was nevertheless richly inventive.

Before this:

It seems odd, that as Art Deco became less widely used in real life, from the late 1940's on, that its use soared in comic books.

People tend to underestimate comic book architecture. There are probably more Art Deco buildings in the comics than have been built in real life, for example. Many are larger and more unusual than many real world Deco structures. Comic book architecture forms a whole parallel world, an alternate world of architecture.

A Note on Abstract Art in Design

In some ways Art Deco simply was Abstract Art, spread throughout society, and entering all aspects of daily life. The geometric forms of De Stijl and Constructivism were used for the design of Deco furniture, dinnerware, jewelry and buildings. They permeated engineering constructions, public buildings and homes. They also were in numerous movies - the first modern art movement to spread by mass media. Later, Deco flourished extensively in comics, as well.

In many ways, the replacement of Deco with Modernism after WW II was a rejection of abstract art. Instead, everything had a functional design. There were rectangles, it is true, but of a monotonous, rhythmic regularity. The other popular architectural style of the 1950's, Suburbia, also had no roots in abstract art or Deco. Instead, homes were built to look like Colonial or Ranch.

Recommended Reading

Rediscovering Art Deco U.S.A. (1994) by Barbara Capitan, Michael D. Kinerk, Dennis W. Wilhelm. Photographs by Randy Juster. Very rich look at Art Deco architecture in the United States. The best place to start learning about American Art Deco architecture.

Decopix - The Art Deco Architecture Site. Huge selection of photos by Randy Juster.

Screen Deco (1985) by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers. Richly illustrated look at Hollywood films with Art Deco sets.

Art Deco: The European Style (1990) by Sarah Morgan. A broad history concentrating on the use of Art Deco in the design of small objects in Europe.