Art Deco Style Structures

During its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the Art Deco was variously referred to as "Streamline" or "Moderne," with a French spelling and pronunciation. In fact, the term "Art Deco" did not come into popular use until the 1960s. As one of several strands of early 20"-century modernism in architecture, the Art Deco strived to create a new style of architecture of stripped down forms, new materials, and rich decoration that reflected the prosperity and promise of the period between the World Wars.

The style takes its name the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris where jewelry, clothing, furniture, and the architecture that housed the exhibits displayed a colorful, future-looking aesthetic based on new materials and methods of manufacture. While the U. S. did not exhibit goods at the 1925 Paris Exposition, the show made a huge impression on the thousands of Americans who attended, including an official U. S. delegation of architects, artists, designers, trade association representatives and journalists.

The 1925 exhibit in Paris was the culmination but not the origin of the Art Deco style. As an eclectic style that borrowed freely from a range of sources, the origins of the Art Deco style elude precise definition. The style's emphasis on rectangularity and abstract geometric forms has been variously attributed to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Arts and Crafts architecture, the Vienna Seccession, the ornament of Frank Lloyd Wright and others of the Prairie School of Architecture. Similarly, the use of color in Art Deco can be traced to German and Dutch Expressionism in architecture, and the Art Deco's emphasis on verticality suggests the influence of the commercial buildings Chicago School. In addition to this amalgam of architectural innovations, the Art Deco style borrowed decorative motifs from ancient cultures such as the Egyptian and the pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec cultures.

An important step in the establishment of the Art Deco in America occurred in Chicago in 1922 with Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen's entry in the competition for the new Chicago Tribune Building in 1922. Though Saarinen's radically stripped- down design with set backs did not win the competition, the design is recognized as an important early Art Deco influence, most notably on Hood and Howell's design for the American Radiator Building in New York from 1924. The stepped-back "wedding cake" shape of these designs that became a signature feature of the style was also influenced by the 1916 zoning ordinance in New York that regulated the massing of tall building to ensure light and air at street level.

Other large corporations in American cities, having grown rich in the booming economy of the 1920s, followed the New York example for their new skyscrapers and commercial buildings. In Chicago the architectural firm of Holabird and Root emerged as a leading practitioner of Art Deco commercial architecture. Important examples of the firm's Art Deco-style skyscrapers include the Palmolive Building (1927, a designated Chicago Landmark), Daily News Building (1928), the Civic Opera Building (1929, a designated Chicago Landmark), and the Chicago Board of Trade Building (1929-30, a designated Chicago Landmark). Other significant examples of the Art Deco skyscraper in Chicago include the Merchandise Mart (1928, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White), the Carbide and Carbon (1928, Burnham Brothers, a designated Chicago Landmark), and the Field Building (1931, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, a designated Chicago Landmark).

Typical of the Art Deco style, most of these buildings include lavish lobbies with colorful marble finishes and bright metal fixtures.

Though Art Deco is perhaps best-known as a "skyscraper-style," it was applied to an entire range of building types in the 1920s and 1930s including small commercial store buildings, entertainment venues like theaters, institutional buildings, and high-rise residential buildings like the Union Park Hotel. Without the height of skyscrapers, these smaller-scale Art Deco-style buildings largely depended upon starkly geometric and abstracted foliate ornament, often formed from multi- colored terra cotta, for visual effect.

The attributes of Art Deco architecture include a strong vertical orientation, often with setbacks as the building rises to a decorated roofline. Other formal characteristics include rectangular shapes, hard edges and textured wall surfaces. Ornamentation, which tends to be concentrated at the base and the top of the building, relies heavily on repeated geometric patterns such as zigzags, chevrons, octagons, and wave-like forms. These are often combined with geometrically abstracted animal and floral forms. The human figure also appears in ornament, often depicting characters from mythology or ancient cultures. All ornament tends to be executed in low relief. Color, either in vivid contrast or in gradual shading, was another important feature of Art Deco architecture. With its glazed surface, ornamental terra cotta offered architects a wide color pallet to choose from.

Just as the Art Deco aesthetic has become associated with the fast pace and prosperity of the American "Jazz Age" or "Roaring Twenties," the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 spelled the beginning of the style's demise. The strained economic conditions resulted in smaller, simpler, and more economical iterations of the Art Deco. At the time this late- development of Art Deco was known as Streamline Modern for its use of curved forms and horizontal lines, best exemplified in Chicago by the Frank F. Fisher Apartments (1936, Andrew Rebori). Also in Chicago, an important late manifestation of the style was the 1933 Century of Progress designed entirely in Streamline Modern by architects John A. Holabird and Raymond Hood. The Art Deco style survived through the 1930s primarily through government-sponsored public works; after World War Il the Art Deco was superseded by the more radical International Style.