The Art Deco House: Prologue to Epilogue
Anthropology, archaeology, the assembling, the cataloging, the visual encyclopedias of every culture’s everything, their patterns, their statuary, their furniture, their temples and teapots were pictured in book-after-book from the beginning of the 19th Century until its ending. You know the type of book– every beak of every finch, Galapagos to Gambia, a fashion in evolution, an inventory of God’s great cornucopia, page-after-page offering images and diagrams almost without number, pictures from which artists could pinch, snitch, snatch and nip. And they did. This the source of Modern Art: universal theft, “Appropriation!” as the Woke will say. In eager pillaging each culture was enriched by every other.
The year 1900 witnessed the odd wedding of art and technology, of engine and spirit at the Exposition Universelle, Paris. Today we expect a wedding of art and technology, we anticipate the many blinking, speaking, spying techno-sprouts who inhabit our homes and pockets and minds. Sometimes we live in these artful machines of moving and staying, but in 1900 the spirited machine was a new thing. At first, the new art was organic alike a growing leaf, the Art Nouveau; yet soon the art was trimmed and cleaned, machined, the Art Deco.
Nations have always incubated aesthetic production, New York no less than Athens. France, for several centuries, Louis XIV through Napoleon III to Minister Loubet, encouraged, even patronized aesthetic manufacture and export. The École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, begun in 1767 under Louis XV, in 1901 (inspired by the Exposition Universelle) gave birth to France’s Societé des artistes décorateurs, the “Society of Decorative Artists”, from which “Art Deco” derives its name.
French decorative artists transformed all of everything in designs broad, simple and bold. Leaves into jazzy wallpaper, ziggurats into architectonic clocks, girls into hangers for feathery costumes, each designing artist eager for fame and profit. Artists of all the world, ever-ambitious, ever-hungry, followed the French into success. Soon, everything was Deco’ed, skyscrapers, automobiles, tiaras. And soon after, the world celebrated the marriage of machine and man when national governments competed to show themselves foremost in the machine-man metamorphosis, a competition alike some species of pre-war battle.
A brief list of competing expositions includes, the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, Paris 1925; A Century of Progress International Exposition, Chicago 1933; Brusselse Wereldtentoonstelling van, 1935 (Brussels International Exposition); Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life … the aesthetic battle upon the eve of bombardment battle), Paris 1937; the New York World’s Fair, 1939. After the aesthetic competition and actual war, all that was human and humane was machined out of art. What came after the great cornucopia of Art Deco aesthetic reimagings? The Streamline Moderne, something of the machine unmanned, and the soulless International Style, a malevolent challenge to flesh and mind, flat, blank, dull.
* * *
* * *
Art Deco Design
Most of us know Art Deco from the local streamlined diner sleek and bright, from bold posters loud and colorful. The speeding train, the dancer trailing veils, the soldier in combat, the jazz trombones, the iconic movie star, and the many other propagandas of nations and industries. Léon Bakst (1882–1924) is worthy of mention. Likely you know of Bakst’s posters for the Ballets Russes and the great Nijinsky. If you do not, you should. Also, the elegant, sensual George Barbier. Must mention our own L.C. Lyndecker, a powerful, underappreciated artist whose strong graphic defined the American heroic as N. Rockwell defined the American sympathetic.
If we were to choose one director of Deco fashion, must say, “Erté”, his designs for Harpers Bazar, Cosmopolitan, the Ziegfeld Follies and other headlining makers of taste. Too, Erté (1892–1990) was active in Hollywood providing costume and set designs, think of his “Ben-Hur” and other blockbusters elegant, cheeky and Deco. Erté’s statuary (not made by him, but by others … this author was in the circle [more of this, some other time]) and graphics extended Deco into the late 20th Century. Should say, “Erté and all of Deco fashion would not be as it was without Aubrey Beardsley.”
Think Lalique (1860–1945), the first and last name in Deco glass. Think of the Deco radio, part Pandora’s box, part machine, instrument to sell ideas, pleasures, debaucheries and other products serviceable to the body, necessary to new fortunes. Think the convenience of toaster and vacuum-cleaner… Electrolux, the mostest in Deco moderne. And yes, the automobile: Rust Heinz’ Phantom Corsair, the Bugatti Aérolithe, and our own Chrysler Airflow, designed by Carl Breer (1934).
STATUARY & PICTUARY
My favorite, Paul Manship, a sculptor whose name and statues are likely to survive the millennia. Lee Lawrie, the one sculptor Americans are likely to know, after Michelangelo and Bartoldi, for his Atlas at Rockefeller Center. Carl Milles, a master of architectural sculpture both heroic and playful. And Marshall Fredericks (1908–1998) whose Spirit of Detroit is prototypical Art Deco, a powerful image of machine-muscled Michigan. Shall always be fond of M. Fredericks who asked of me, “Well, young man, you intend to be a sculptor. Tell me, how will you feed your family.”
Among picture-makers, Rockwell Kent comes first to mind, though a communist. Few think of Grant Wood, classifying him an agrarian Regionalist, though his Deco is unquestionable. Thomas Hart Benton and other design’y muralists. Should mention, Benton taught the has-been Jackson Pollock the little Pollock knew of rhythm and color … Pollock’s alcohol-drowned mind retained little of Benton’s sympathetic, humane design. Oops! Nearly forgot: sculptor, Carl Paul Jennewein.
Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950), Swedish-American, from his Helsinki Central Station to Cranbrook (a complex of museums, studios, classrooms, and houses) created an Art Deco personal and influential, much as Richardson did with the Romanesque. The furniture of Saarinen House is among the best of the style. Most know Raymond Hood’s American Radiator Building. Everyone knows William Van Alen’s Chrysler Building, a beloved Classive skyscraper by an accomplished student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. My favorite Deco skyscraper, the Fisher Building in Detroit by Joseph Nathaniel French. Exquisite. Also by J.N. French, the General Motors Futurama exposition building at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
As mentioned, Art Deco single family houses are, for the most part, uncommon. We tend to think “Deco” in the common metal diner, the magnificent marquee’d movie palace, and in the elegant hotel, as in the Waldorf Astoria where we might expect to find a Bertie Wooster guided by his Jeeves. When I think of Deco’s bold flamboyance, I think of my father’s employer, Billy Rose, and the Aquacade of the ’37 Clevland and the ’39 NY World’s Fairs. (My father, a handsome, appealing young photography student, was employed by Rose to attract girls into Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe nightclub). Right, and should mention the Deco mausoleum, Rose’s personal mausoleum, and the fashion for Deco funerary monuments that survives to this day.
* * *
* * *
Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, International
Art Deco was inspired by the simple forms of ancient cultures. You will notice in Art Deco, Egyptian and Babylonian motifs, statuary inspired by the metope of Zeus’ Olympia temple; you will recognize in Art Deco, Cycladic idols, Sumerian costume, the intricacies of Persian tiles and carpets, India’s vast immensities and the bold simplicity of Athens’ black-figure ware. Yes, there is something in the Art Deco house of machined production and doodad; yet, the machine is merely veneer, powerful archaic form is Deco’s essence.
Yes, we see in Deco the speeding train, the streamlined aeroplane, yet Art Deco is a Classive style because it participates in the Beautiful, Good and True from the archaic through the Classical into the Renaissance, into our American Enlightened Liberty. Art Deco is modern Classive, inasmuch as a century-old style can be modern.
The Streamline Moderne is something alike reference-rich Art Deco, but stripped naked of meaning, nature and warmth, as though pressed into being by a giant’s hot iron, starched, stretched and long. You will see in the style seams where the iron’s tip bites, and you will find tight curves alike bodiless rounded shoulders. The stripes of metal rails seem to be bare amulets. Instead of window eyes there are banded eyes or walls of glass-block through which there is light but no vision. And windows are common on corners, where they don’t belong because a corner needs support. Seems to me I’ve never seen a Streamline Moderne in any color expect a fading white with dark dust creased into its seams.
The Streamline Moderne, not the Deco, is the style most compatible with aerodynamic, outside-in design of planes, trains, automobiles, and toasters. Most historians and laypeople conflate the Streamline with the Deco. Easy to distinguish differences: the Deco is designed from inside out, from the seed that grows decorations of leaf and pattern, from visual stories that keep and grow tradition. The Moderne is designed from the outside in, as though the wind as blown away the leaf and man and meaning.
The International Style is rare in houses because it is ugly and unloveable. Occasionally you will find an International plopped into a neighborhood, a loud Progressive statement intended to disquiet neighbors. Perhaps you have noticed in your open lawned neighborhood an International with its wall enclosed yard, as though the thing was a fort in hostile country. I have seen many of these disquieting forts with their chain-grinding electric gates that allow Progressives entry and exit without ever a “howdy-do” to neighbors.
Internationals are usually architect-designed, featured upon some fawning magazine spread to illustrate an International style office, warehouse, factory, post-office or church building … difficult to discern differences in an International building’s purpose (gas-station or church?) because the style is mute and dumb. The worshipped Corbusier, superman of the International, would often prevaricate upon the style, “a machine for living” he would say … true and not true. The International style house is lifeless alike a machine, deadly to we creatures who need Beauty, Goodness and Truth. International style exemplars include Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Richard Neutra, designers who imported the Progressive infection from Europe, an infection that yet spreads along every highway and plastic strip of these united states. New York’s century-old Museum of Modern Art yet celebrates, promotes, and sells the style.
* * *
* * *
Art Deco House Characteristics
Flat, with the occasional tower or parapet.
Windows are usually vertical, often decorated with a geometric band. A large central window might be flanked with a row of smaller panes. Sometimes, glass block, though glass block is usually reserved for Streamline Moderne. Muntins most often of some-or-other metal.
Structure and Materials
Stucco. In rare instances, brick or block.
Space and Floor Plan
Asymmetrical rectangular. Plans are usually more open than other houses of the period, yet the Art Deco house is usually loyal to the organization of family and pacing of the day.
Front doors can be theatrical. You will often find a porch roof unsupported by column, bracket, or pilaster, just, kind of, sticking out, like a tongue or frisbee.
There will be geometric bands standing-in for frieze and cornice. You will see chevrons and zigzags, florals and starbursts and other loud motifs.
White or pastel with complementary polychromy in the ornamentation.
A formalized geometric patio with integrated water and fire elements is not uncommon. Since often in warm climates, the Art Deco house will be planted with bright-bold flowers and big-leafed plants.
There is little variation Deco to Deco, though subtle variations separate Art Deco from Moderne from International. Often, all three styles are housed under one categorical roof, though in this, architectural historians and magazine columnists are mistaken. The Moderne and International styles are Progressive, soulless and unlovable. The Art Deco is Classive, rich in the visual language of civilized nature, so the Art Deco is often souled, and loved.
* * *
Art Deco Quotes
The Kessler Theater is one such gem, an Art Deco beauty … for a slice of real life, there’s always the Kessler. Ben Fountain
There’s nowhere like Detroit; it’s a modern necropolis: all these Art Deco masterpieces crumbling away. Malik Bendjelloul
When I’m in London, Claridge’s is a great favourite. I’m a big fan of Art Deco architecture and the rooms are extraordinary. Roman Coppola
* * *
Art Deco Gallery
* * *
Featured image, Miami en Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico
More on the Art Deco house style can be found at The Beautiful Home.
* * *