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Art Deco

art deco buildings, modern artists, Ecole des Beaux Arts, curved shapes, geometric patterns

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Art Deco, style popular in the 1920s and 1930s, used primarily in the design of buildings, furniture, jewelry, and interior decor. Art deco is characterized by sleek, streamlined forms; geometric patterns; and experiments with industrial materials such as metals, plastics, and glass. The term art deco is a shortening of the title of a major Paris design exhibition held in 1925, Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts), where the style first became evident. Art deco quickly gained hold in the United States, where it reached the height of its achievement in architecture, especially in New York City’s soaring skyscrapers of the late 1920s and early 1930s such as the Chrysler, Daily News, and Empire State buildings. Because many art deco buildings went up during a period of economic collapse known as the Great Depression, the style is sometimes known as depression moderne.

Art deco grew out of a conscious effort to simplify the elaborately curved shapes and plantlike motifs of art nouveau, the prevailing style in architecture and design at the beginning of the 20th century. Art deco retained the tendency of art nouveau toward abstraction and repetition of forms but moved away from the shapes and motifs of the older style.

The clean lines, streamlining, and symmetry of art deco designs reflect the increasing importance of industrial products in everyday life, and a corresponding interest among modern artists and designers in the beauty of machinery. Art deco objects were usually not mass-produced, yet many of them possess qualities belonging to mass production: simplicity, unvaried repetition, and geometric patterns. Designers began to look at industrial products less as utilitarian objects than as inspiration for art.

Art deco was also a product of the fertile artistic exchange between Paris, France, and New York City that occurred after World War I (1914-1918). American artists, writers, and musicians flocked to Paris after the war and brought with them a fresh approach to creative work. The French, who grounded their art in a firm grasp of tradition, absorbed something of the American spirit of improvisation. Later, American architects who had trained at Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts (School of Fine Arts) brought European influence to the design of New York’s many art deco skyscrapers.


Hewitt, Mark A., A.B., M.Arch.

Associate Professor, School of Architecture, New Jersey Institute of Technology. Author of "The Architect and the American Country House, 1890-1940" and other books.

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