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During the High Middle Ages, Europeans built the tallest Gothic cathedrals to be closer to God. In the 1920s and 1930s, Americans erected the tallest skyscrapers in the world to symbolize the spirit of fast-paced, modern urban life. These skyscrapers featured a distinct international style called Art Deco. Art Deco was popular during the interwar period of the 20th century. In architecture, this style is instantly recognizable because of its geometric look and expensive materials. Keep reading to learn more about the history, artists, and more.
Costume design for Ballets Russes by the then-Cubist painter Pablo Picasso (1917) mixes the two essential influences of Art Deco. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Born in France in the second decade of the 20th century, Art Deco spread throughout Europe and the United States by the mid-1920s. A key point in its development was the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts of 1925—a world fair in Paris where Art Deco was prominently displayed. In fact, this fair was the source of the term "Art Deco."
Art Deco was an international style in applied arts and architecture in the 1920s and 1930s that focused on simple geometric shapes and a streamlined look and often used expensive materials like steel.
Art Deco dominated applied arts and architecture in the 1920s and 1930s internationally.
There are several famous examples of Art Deco architecture in the United States, including skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Rockefeller Center, by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1933. Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia Commons (no known copyright restrictions).
Art Deco effectively ended with the start of the Second World War. However, 1960s architects rediscovered it, restoring many original buildings. Today, these buildings are historic landmarks.
World fairs became a fixture in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The French were the first to organize large displays to promote French manufacturing and industrial production and to compete with Britain. Eventually, world fairs began to display products from several countries. They also provided various types of entertainment and attractions to impress the audience. Today, industry-focused expos and conferences are smaller versions of these events.
World's fair: an international event featuring exhibits from many different countries. Historically, world fairs promoted national manufacturing.
The Parisian International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was actually supposed to take place in 1916. However, because of the First World War, this fair had to be moved to a later date—1925.
Chicago World's Fair, A Century of Progress poster, 1933. Source: Library of Congress, Wikipedia Commons (public domain, U.S.).
Art Deco had many diverse influences: from Cubism to Ballets Russes dance company in Europe.
The Art Deco style began to spread throughout American cities in the 1920s. Skyscrapers, office buildings, department stores, and even train stations and dams featured Art Deco elements. Today, many of these buildings are considered historic landmarks.
Many famous skyscrapers featuring the Art Deco style are located in New York City, Detroit, and Chicago—the key urban and industrial centers of that period. What these buildings have in common is their impressive height, their streamlined look, and their use of expensive materials. Many of these structures were conceptualized by famous architects or firms.
Some of the well-known skyscrapers are:
|LeVeque Tower||Columbus, OH||1927|
|City Hall of Los Angeles||Los Angeles, CA||1928|
|Fisher Building||Detroit, MI||1928|
|Guardian Building||Detroit, MI||1929|
|Carbide & Carbon Building||Chicago, IL||1929|
|Chicago Board of Trade Building||Chicago, IL||1930|
|Chrysler Building||New York City, NY||1930|
|Eastern Columbia Building||Los Angeles, CA||1930|
|Rockefeller Center (the first 14 buildings)||New York City, NY||1930s|
|Empire State Building||New York City, NY||1931|
|Buffalo City Hall||Buffalo, NY|
|General Electric Building||New York City, NY||1931|
|Kansas City Power and Light Building||Kansas City, KS||1931|
|American International Building||New York City||1932|
|Niagara Mohawk Building||Syracuse, NY|
The Empire State Building is perhaps the most famous Art Deco skyscraper in the United States. It is also a landmark famous worldwide, symbolizing New York City. Erected in 1931, the Empire State Building's height is 1,454 feet. At that time, the skyscraper was the tallest building in the world and held the top spot until 1970. Today, this skyscraper is part of the U.S. National Historic Landmarks list as well as the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Empire State Building, 1932. Source: The National Archives and Records Administration, 68145840, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).
Did you know?
The Empire State Building was designed by the architect William F. Lamb. Lamb received his education in France at the École des Beaux-Arts. He was influenced by the artistic and architectural developments in Europe and used them as an inspiration in the United States. He designed the Empire State Building with his firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon.
New York City and Chicago are symbols of the modern lifestyle in the 20th-century interwar period. But they are not the only cities that feature historic Art Deco architecture. The Kansas City Power and Light Building (KCP&L Building) is a landmark skyscraper in Kansas City, Missouri. This skyscraper was designed by the Holt, Price & Barnes architecture firm and was built in the same year as the Empire State Building.
Did you know?
The Kansas City Power and Light Building was the tallest building in the state until 1976.
The interwar period is the time between the end of the First World War (1914-1918) and the beginning of the Second World War (1939-1945).
There were many well-known Art Deco creators around the world: artists, architects, illustrators, and even costume designers. Tamara de Lempicka, for instance, was a famous artist of Polish descent who worked in France. Another visual artist, Romain de Tirtoff (Erté), of Russian background, also operated in Paris. He created illustrations, designed sets, costumes, and fashion, and did interior design. Renowned Mexican painter Diego Rivera, known for his murals, is also associated with Art Deco.
Fig. 1 - Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry mural, 1932-33. Source: Detroit Institute of Arts, Wikipedia Commons (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license).
Arguably, the best-known Art Deco-era architect was Le Corbusier. A Swiss-born French architect, he is considered one of the most important 20th-century architects who also significantly impacted city planning. Le Corbusier went far beyond Art Deco. He was interested in making public and private spaces functional and examined the interaction between people and their environment.
Many American architects and firms used the popular Art Deco style in their work:
Some of the traits of Art Deco are:
American architecture produced a number of its own versions of Art Deco.
|Art Deco style||Description|
|Greco Deco||This style drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman art, making it more geometric and simplified. Many U.S. government buildings feature Greco Deco.|
|Streamline||A simpler variant of Art Deco, this style was prominently featured during the Great Depression in the U.S.|
|PWA Moderne||Public Works Administration Deco also arose during the Great Depression. It was associated with public buildings commissioned through the New Deal.|
Fig. 2 - Greco Deco style example, Rackham Graduate School Building at the University of Michigan, by Corrado Parducci. Source: Wikipedia Commons (GNU Free Documentation License).
One such style was Greco Deco which developed in the late 1920s. Greco Deco was a fusion of Greco-Roman inspiration and modern Art Deco. This style could be found in reliefs or murals in various structures. Greco Deco was so popular that many American government buildings constructed before the Second World War featured it.
Greco Deco was a variant of Art Deco that mixed Greco-Roman imagery with Art Deco and was often used on government buildings.
"Greco-Roman" refers to ancient Greece and Rome's culture and history.
The mid-1930s saw the rise of another Art Deco variant called Streamline, for instance, the style of the San Francisco Maritime Museum (1936). Because Streamline originated during the economic devastation of the Great Depression, its look was simpler. At times, the Streamline style displayed elongated shapes and iron railings.
Streamline was a stylistically more somber variant of Art Deco that originated during the Great Depression.
Finally, the PWA Moderne variant of Art Deco also emerged amidst the Great Depression. Indeed, it was directly linked to the government initiatives to resolve economic hardship under the New Deal. "PWA" stands for "Public Works Administration" projects in the United States. Many public buildings from this period, including libraries, schools, museums, and even dams and bridges, used this style. One of its most famous examples is the Hoover Dam (1931-1936) on the border of Nevada and Arizona. This project was inaugurated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself and was completed with the help of thousands of laborers.
New Deal was a broad government program (1933-1939) launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to lift the United States out of the Great Depression.
PWA Moderne, Public Works Administration Deco, was a variant of Art Deco that originated in the 1930s and was used in government projects to provide economic relief.
The style of architecture in the United States changed after the Second World War. However, by the 1960s, many of the original Art Deco buildings began to be restored. Today, some of the structures from the 1920s-1930s are considered historic landmarks because they represent the artistic heritage of the United States. The Empire State Building, for instance, houses one of the most famous museums in New York City.
Art Deco architecture used expensive materials such as steel and concrete. Its style was clean, slick, and focused on geometric motifs in order to channel the fast pace of an urban lifestyle. Maybe famous New York skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center are instantly recognizable as Art Deco exemplars. Art Deco had a number of variants. For example, Greco-Deco was inspired by ancient Greek and Roman art. Many American government buildings featured this style.
Many famous artists, designers, and architects used Art Deco around the world. For example, one famous artist was the Polish-French creator Tamara de Lempicka. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier is best known in his field. Romain de Tirtoff (Erté) was a well-known illustrator and costume creator of Russian descent who worked in Paris.
Art Deco arose from many inspirations. For example, Art Nouveau was a precedent that influenced Art Deco. Cubist painting and sculpture, which came from artists like Picasso and Braque and spread throughout Europe and North America, also had an impact on this style with its emphasis on geometry. The Greco-Deco variant of Art Deco in the United States drew inspiration from classical Greece and Rome and reinterpreted these inspirations in a modern context.
There are many examples of Art Deco style in the United States. They include skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, many government buildings in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and even the Hoover Dam.
The Art Deco style flourished internationally after 1925 and was replaced by other art movements after World War II.
Where did the term “Art Deco” come from?
International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris (1925)
Which type of Art Deco was used by the projects constructed during the New Deal era?
Which architect designed the Empire State Building?
William F. Lamb
Which international style did Art Deco replace?
What was the tallest building in the world between 1931-1970?
Empire State Building
What is Greco Deco?
Greco Deco is a variant of Art Deco that featured architectural elements inspired by Graeco-Roman art.
What is the status of many Art Deco buildings today?
These buildings are considered historic landmarks.
Who designed the Kansas City Power and Light Building?
Holt, Price & Barnes
What is the style of the San Francisco Maritime Museum?
Which President helped develop PWA Moderne?
Franklin D. Roosevelt
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