During these past weeks, I’ve written about the progression of many architectural styles and have described the reasons for their evolution. Throughout the ages, buildings, furniture and art have been a reflection of a region’s geography, culture, natural resources and political power.
And, oftentimes, design movements have been reactions to the preceding design movements. Sometimes they are enhancements and sometimes utter rejections. Whatever the case, logical flow and reasoning have always been in play. But today, I’m throwing you a monkey wrench.
What if I told you that today’s style subject can be described as curved but straight, black and white but colorful, composed of expensive but inexpensive materials? What if it contained the austere and blocky elements of the Bauhaus movement as well as the frilly, flowery elements of Art Noveau? What if its origins come from France, Germany, Vienna, Amsterdam and England — and also the Far and the Middle East?
The style at hand was influenced by technological advances especially those related to new travel such as the long and streamlined curves of automobiles, trans-Atlantic passenger liners, and airplanes. It was also influenced by discoveries around the world, including the pyramids of Egypt. Even Hollywood’s emerging silver screen had its effects.
If you haven’t yet guessed what falls under this enormous umbrella, I have more clues. The Great Gatsby, Miami, and Hercule Poirot on the Orient Express. That’s right — Art Deco. The one style that is composed of many styles, some contradictory but all united in the desire to be modern.
It first appeared in France just before World War I and during its heyday in the 1920s, it represented luxury, glamour and faith in social and technological progress. Think of old Carole Lombard movies, large statement posters, and the day Downton Abbey’s daring Lady Mary cut her hair into a pageboy fashioned after a flapper girl.
The bold, sleek and gracefully curved lines of transportation carriers, the strong geometry of ziggurats and pyramids, and even the fan-like shape of King Tutankhamen’s headdress can be found in Art Deco architecture, furniture, fabric, wallpaper, clothes, jewelry, and even cigarette holders and type fonts.
Think of the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, San Francisco’s Stock Exchange Tower and Napa’s own Uptown Theater.
The optimism, wealth and travels of the 1920s used rich materials such as ebony, ivory and tortoise shell and shiny finishes like mirror and polished metals.
In 1926, a devastating hurricane hit and razed Miami’s South Beach. The tragedy prompted a rebuilding of the area in the Art Deco style — but with the switch to vivid, rainbow and sunset colors (perhaps as a sign of hope?)
After the Great Depression, Art Deco became more subdued (except in Miami) and less expensive materials such as chrome plating, stainless steel and plastic were employed. Soon, too, the severity and sadness of World War II would freeze in time the carefree and future-bound spirit of Art Deco altogether.
At the end of the war, this freeze melted a little and blended with a more affordable style. “Mid-century Modern,” as we call it, will be featured in my upcoming column and will also conclude this 13-part series. If you’d like a handout of the entire series along with photos, send me an email.