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The Thirties - Art Deco and Streamline Style


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USA in the 1930's - Art Deco & Streamline Style

Postwar Reconstruction in the USA

Welcome to the world of the Future, today!

After over a decade of difficult times (the Great Depression, and then WWII) the US was booming economically. The average family had a disposable income, there was the rise of a new demographic - teenagers, and consumerism went wild.

The population was encouraged to spend like there was no tomorrow, and given the Cold War obsession with the likelihood of an A-Bomb strike by the USSR at any time, it's not surprising that the idea took off. Everything should be NEW! Your life will really be IMPROVED! by that stylish new chair.

We'll be watching some archival films from the fab Prelinger Archives:


Don't let the Prelinger category title of Futurism fool you, there's no ranting F.T. Marinetti, just a bunch of shiningly optimistic American 50's footage.

Art Deco retained an influence in the US after WWII, in particular Streamline Style. The International Style was becoming increasingly important, in particular in urban architecture.

Domestic architecture was to some extent influenced by both Art Deco and the International Style, but there were also other, nationalistic forces at work, particularly after the war.

Frank Lloyd Wright was particularly well known for his opposition to the International Style which he considered to be communist.

Politically, this was a tumultuous time in the US with the McCarthy communist witch-hunts causing deep divisions. The Cold War was at it's peak (the fabulous "Duck and Cover" how-to-survive-an- A-bomb-attack video on Prelinger is from this same era).

Ah, but if you're a Consumer, you won't be like those horrid Communists, so Spend! Spend! Spend!

In one film we'll be watching, the "American Look" (1958) claimed to be uniquely and distinctively All-American includes a Barcelona Chair (ironically, by the Bauhaus' Mies van der Rohe, the epitome of the International Style designers so detested by the patriotic FLW) and graphic design and office layouts that look to be straight out of the De Stijl Movement Schroeder House. Perhaps a case of repudiating the principles of the International Style by simply stealing it's designs and calling them American? I guess that's a good lesson in practical Capitalism....

This mass consumerism was held to be just what any loyal American MUST aspire to: "By the way things look as well as the way they perform, our homes acquire new grace, new glamour, new accommodations. Expressing not only the American love of beauty, but also the basic freedom of the American people, which is the freedom of Individual choice".

There was also a feeling that Man had dominated nature: "Engineering the shape and look of machines that change the shape and look of the land itself"


While early French Art Deco emphasised the very best, most luxurious of materials for wealthy patrons, it also captured the imagination of the public and there was wide demand for the "Style 1925". Manufacturers obliged, and Art Deco spread rapidly throughout the world. The UK was one of the few places where it met resistance, as the Arts & Crafts tradition was still having an effect there.

The US, on the other hand, took the new style with boisterous enthusiasm. Nowhere is this more evident than in the skyscrapers of New York. The technical problems of building multi-story buildings had been largely solved by the Chicago School (see Art Nouveau in the US lecture) but as the Bauhaus-refugees mostly moved to Chicago, that city largely went from Art Nouveau directly into the International Style. New York, on the other hand, thrived on the idea of 'bigger, better, more elaborate', and Art Deco was perfect for such an environment.

Manhattan zoning laws, which were some of the earliest in the world, required that buildings get narrower toward their top to allow daylight to penetrate the city streets. Along with the influence of primitivism on Art Deco style, this requirement led to the stepped pyramid top so familiar on classic Art Deco wonders such as the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.

William van Alen (1882-1954)

Designed the Chrysler Building, called by Robert Hughes "the greatest realisation of corporate logo as art in history". Winged hubcaps and giant Eagle hood ornaments adorn it's corners like futuristic gargoyles. The semi-circular top echoes the spokes of the car wheels that drove the wealth to which the building was a monument.

Aeclecticism, that catch-word of Victoriana, thrived again in Art Deco. While Art Nouveau largely took it's influences from nature and geometry, Art Deco collected influences from a huge variety of sources. One can see the return of Chinese and other 'exotic' asian influences. Primitivism also reared it's head - African tribal masks and caricatures of Negro stereotypes abounded. The grandeur of ancient empires such as the Aztec and Mayan suited the over-the-top style of Art Deco architecture.

Tutmania, or The Nile Style

Possibly the most widespread fad in Art Deco was the Egyptian influence, triggered by the discovery in 1922 of Tutenkahmun's tomb. Tutmania, as it was called, swept the world. From scarab brooches to fan-shaped freizes around buildings, kitch emblems of Ancient Egypt were everywhere.

In 1929, the Great Depression hit. Now, you'd think that with millions of people unemployed, that would mean an end to a style that championed opulence and excess, but no! The world took to the idea of fantasy and escapism in all forms of Arts and entertainment. This is the era of Busby Berkeley movies, and Hollywood Stars in glittering golden gowns, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. lynnpdesign.com/classicmovies/berkeley/index.html

1939 New York World's Fair

Featuring Futurama! General Motor's spectacular exhibit of what the world will look like in 1960. Wow!

The rest of the world stood on the brink of war, and America was just recovering from the Great Depression - so what could be better than an enormous Consumerfest, promising a bright, shining Utopian future for all.

If you have the bandwidth, you can download some amazing public-domain video (both amateur footage and the official GM film promoting the exhibit) at the Prelinger Archives.

Streamline Style

Looking fast didn't necessarily mean things went any faster. An example is this Commer truck from the 1930's, where a heavy and very expensive 'streamline' body has been installed on a standard truck chassis. The result is a definite statement in style, but difficult to mainstain and less functional than a standard truck body.

Although it's most ideal form was in car design, streamline style was applied to all manner of household goods such as fans, radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners and other items where speed and aerodynamics were not a consideration.

Raymond Loewy (1893-1986)

His estate claims him to be "The Father of Industrial Design". Considering he didn't start designing until the 30's, that would tend to deny the existence a lot of what we've covered in these past months such as the achievements of the Wiener Werkstaette, the Bauhaus etc.

However, Loewy did design a lot of things that have become modern-day icons, such as the Lucky Strike cigarette packet, the Shell logo, the 'slenderized' Coke bottle, and he was certainly one of the key players in bringing 'Streamlining' to a mass market, although personally I think it's beginnings were much earlier - even going as far back as Christopher Dresser around 50 years earlier.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958)

Theatrical set designer who turned his hand to applying Streamline Style to vehicles, such as fantastic (and non-airworthy) aeroplanes, Space-Age cars and super-stylised trains. He designed the famous General Motors Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which included the Highway and Horizons exhibit, more commonly known as "Futurama". Few of his vehicle designs were ever actually made, but his imagination and sheer style captured the public's attention.

Harley Earl (1893-1969) also spelled Harley Earle

Head car designer for GM in their 'Motorama' era, and probably the person most responsible for the development of fins on cars.

Piaggio Vespa Scooter

OK, I'm a bit biased in my choice of example here as I ride a vintage Vespa myself. It's not as old as this one, but then this one's a much better example of Streamline Style. This is a prototype Vespa from 1945 called the Paperino, of which only a hundred were made. museopiaggio.com/english/collezio1.htm

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

Probably the US's best-known architect of domestic dwellings. Although he was a unique individual, his career spanned and was influenced by a variety of styles. He's often included in US Arts & Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau (also covered in that lecture) and also Art Deco. As mentioned by Robert Hughes in the documentary "American Visions - Streamlines and Breadlines", sometimes perhaps Wright's architectural arrogance got the better of him, such as in the case of Fallingwater - in which the noise of the water is so loud that the house is difficult to live in, or the Guggenheim Museum, a spiralling structure in which the paintings (which it was built to display) are jammed into small alcoves.

Early in his career, Wright developed the Prarie Style (see Art Nouveau in US lecture). In the Art Deco period, he was responsible for the Usonian style - Californian domestic architecture, such as "Fallingwater".

One style into which Wright did NOT fit was the International Style. He was vehemently opposed to what he saw as it's characterless genericism and the communist ideals it suggested.



Wright also made furniture:

Contextual factors to consider:

  • Roaring 20's - prohibition, flappers.
  • Depression - led to need for escapism.
  • In a dismal present, a Utopian future had great appeal. NY World's Fair, Futurama.
  • WWII looms.
  • Hollywood - the fantasy granduer of Busby Berkeley movies.
  • Broadway - the influence of opulent costume design, lighting.

Some key technical innovations:

Meanwhile, in Fine Art:

  • European Modernism develops into Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism
  • Decorative branches of Art Nouveau develop into Art Deco

Some recommended online Art Deco resources:

Google.com image search for Art Deco
Google Directory - Art Movements - Art Deco
NSW Art Deco Society: www.twentieth.org.au
Victorian Art Deco Society: www.artdeco.org.au
Art Deco World: www.artdecoworld.com
Art Deco Society of California: www.art-deco.org
Art Deco Society of New York: www.artdeco.org

retrokat.com quite nice sites

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