Art Deco in America
Keywords: Jazz Age, Art Deco, Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Donald Deskey, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, Great Depression, Wall Street Crash, The Great Gatsby, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Waldorf-Astoria, RCA Victor, RCA Victor, Niagara Mohawk, Warner Brothers Western Theater, Wiltshire Boulevard, Griffith Observatory
Art Deco was a glamorous, decadent style that flourished in the 1920s and 30s, the style of the Jazz Age. The name ‘Art Deco’ comes from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts).
Art Deco was taken up in America as the language of modernity. America was not represented at the 1925 Paris Exhibition, but a group of American designers went over to study it and brought the style back to the USA. One of these was Donald Deskey, who became the artistic director of Radio City Music Hall, which is an entertainment venue located in Rockefeller Center in New York. Deskey oversaw every aspect of the interior design. It was dominated by the auditorium, with a huge proscenium arch in the form of a giant sunburst. Sunbursts were a key Art Deco motif, and this is the ultimate example. The radiant waves of colour were meant to evoke the setting sun.
In this era, America was immersed in the Great Depression, after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Places like this offered an escape from the harsh realities of the present. This is fundamentally different from the French version of Art Deco. It is not as elitist here – it’s an example of luxury and glamour made available to a mass audience. Radio City Music Hall is a palace of mass culture.
By the 1930s, New York had come to challenge Paris as the centre of luxury and decadence. It had it own elite society of wealthy patrons, artists and intellectuals. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, a famous jazz age novel that’s set in an Art Deco world of privilege and luxury. The Empire State Building is perhaps the most famous building in the world; a capitalist citadel that emphasised the huge discrepancy of wealth in American society. This is one of many skyscrapers that were built in New York. It was an index of the power of Manhattan. The Art Deco styling is not obvious, but the tiered summit with its stepped back structure was inspired by Aztec pyramids. Aztec design was an influence on American Art Deco. This building was mythologised in King Kong (1933).
Perhaps the best example of American Art Deco is the Chrysler Building, built by the Chrysler Corporation and designed by William van Alen. The building is constructed from a steel frame. It’s surmounted by a spectacular metallic spire that rises in a series of ascending curves based on sunbursts. The metal cladding was meant to resemble platinum. The ornamentation is based on car styling. The corners have these gleaming metallic eagles that look like modernistic gargoyles. They’re replicas of 1929 Chrysler hood ornaments. The building is a monument to the car industry.
The surface of the building is covered in mechanistic patterned brickwork, which gives it a metallic sheen.
The lobby of the Chrysler Building is equally spectacular. It’s entirely lined in amber-coloured marble with lustrous metallic fittings. This is an elevator door with a design based on the papyrus flower, another Egyptian motif. It’s executed in inlaid wood and metal.
To begin with Art Deco was used for commercial buildings. The RCA Victor Building has a spectacular summit which draws on Aztec imagery. It looks like a temple dedicated to the sacrificial worship of the sun. RCA Victor was a pioneer in the field of recorded music and the building has emblems of modern technology. The bolts of energy represent the power of electricty.
A similar theme runs through the headquarters of the Niagara Mohawk power company in Syracuse, New York (1930). This was designed by Bley and Lyman. This is a corporate palace with a gleaming metallic façade. The centrepiece is the allegorical sculpture of a heroic figure, like an electric angel. This is a theme that runs through a lot of Art Deco architecture. It symbolized the forces of modernity through allegorical sculpture.
Eventually the style was used for public buildings, including government offices.
This is City Hall in Buffalo, New York State, by George J. Dietel. The tiered structure is reminiscent of a Mayan pyramid and the pinnacle has decoration in multi-coloured terracotta. This was directly influenced by Mayan sources, but it’s been abstracted and modernised.
Art Deco also spread to the West Coast and was used in California. The Warner Brothers Western Theater on Wiltshire Boulevard, Los Angeles (1930-1) was designed by Morgan, Walls and Clemens. It has a glazed terrcotta surface in a vivid liquid blue colour. This resembles lapis lazuli, a material that was used extensively in Ancient Egyptian design. The interior is typically plush. Every surface is saturated with geometricized detailing and permutations of sunbursts.
A famous example of Californian Art Deco is the Griffith Observatory (1933-5) in the hills above Los Angeles. This was designed by John C. Austin. It has a central pavilion with two flanking wings. This was executed in reinforced concrete, but the form and massing are thoroughly Art Deco.