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Week 12 - Art Deco and Streamline Style

Video: Robert Hughes' American Visions - Breadlines and Streamlines (approx 55 mins). Contextualisation of Art Deco in the USA. It's the era of the Great Depression and yet buildings are getting taller, grander. Consumers are tempted with a shining dream of the future. They may not be able to afford the latest Chrysler car, but they can afford a fan or toaster that looks pretty similar. (will watch earlier as this week full of tutorials)

Since your research assignment is on Art Deco, I'm not going to write up here what it is, you can do that for yourselves! Ah, OK. I'll just put a bit. I'll add more after you hand in your assignments so you can cram for the test :)

While Art Nouveau's functionalism aspects had developed into Modernism in it's various regional forms, the more decorative, whimsical and stylistic aspects developed into something else altogether. We now call that style Art Deco, although at the time it was known as a variety of other names, most of which reflected the event that was seen as the birthplace of Art Deco - the 1925 Paris Exposition.

Although much of Art Deco's character developed directly from Art Nouveau, there was also a strong new influence, partly inspired by the colonialist idea of the Noble Savage. African, Aztec, Mayan, Egyptian - all were somewhat ironically appropriated in this style that strove to be completely modern. This was the Roaring 20's and "anything goes".

As the term Art Deco was not even used until the 1960's, it should be noted that there is considerable debate about what Art Deco includes. Some insist it finished with the Great Depression - which may be true of the more opulent original styles, particularly in France. Others (myself included) consider that Art Deco persisted right up to the 1950's, when Modernism finally killed the last vestiges of the whimsical style in regional backwaters such as Perth, Western Australia. Movie houses built here in the late 1930's and public housing estates built after WWII show classic signs of Art Deco.




1925 Paris Exposition

Officially known as the "Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes". Originally planned for 1914 but delayed until 1925 due to WWI, this International Exposition was planned by the French government to symbolise all that was new and modern. Over 15 million people attended the Exposition. Many European countries participated, but the US and Canada chose not to. That's not to say it didn't influence them, as we'll see a little later.

René Lalique (1860-1945)

Art Nouveau Jeweller whose style and love of both embellishment and stylisation of the human form were key to the development of Art Deco. Lalique's organic, twisting forms in glass had been long established as bottles for fine perfume, and he now developed decorative art glass objects such as vases, statuettes and... hood ornaments. Yep, made from glass. Practical, eh?

Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann (1879-1933)

Art Deco in it's original French incarnation was a style of opulence and excess. Ruhlmann was one of the Movement's foremost cabinet makers and decorators. His pieces were often made of lacquered and/or gilded wood and rich, lush fabrics such as this heavy velvet day-bed.

Edgar Brandt (1880-1960)

A leading creative force of French Art Deco, metalsmith Brandt made ironwork for the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels in Paris in 1925, the defining event of Art Deco.

Raymond Subes (1893-1970)

Another metalsmith well known for his wrought iron furniture of this period.

Jean Dunand (1877 - 1942)

Luxurious lacquerware and beautiful bookbindings. Some of Dunand's lush lacquerware furniture took months to finish, requiring hundreds of layers of varnish to be applied. Dunand contributed to the three great French ocean liners of the period, the lle de France (1928), the Atlantique (1931) and the Normandie (1935).


Cassandre (1901-1968)

Full name was Adolphe-Mouron Cassandre. Graphic Designer, born in Russia but active mostly in France. Best known for his posters, but was also a painter, theatre designer, typographer and artist. During his lifetime, he was of the most successful commercial designers in Europe.

Erte (1892-1990)

Like Cassandre, Russian-born Romain de Tirtoff moved to Paris and took up a snappy single name. He was also a poster and theatrical designer, heavily influenced by the work of Art Nouveau icon Aubrey Beardsley.

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

English ceramicist known for her bold, bright designs. Although to some degree, she followed more in the tradition of the Arts & Crafts Movement, there were elements of Art Deco in her work. In the UK, she's often championed as a significant figure in Art Deco.

Coco Chanel (1883-1971)

Fashion designer whose work was so important to Art Deco that "Style Chanel" was one of the terms used to describe Art Deco in the 1920's.


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

Next Week: The International Style

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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