Art Deco, the old 20th Century art of industrial decoration, was inspired by archaic Greek and other antique styles, by ancient patterns of representation and worship. You will notice in the Art Deco style, Egyptian and Babylonian motifs, statuary cousined with metopes of Zeus’ Olympia temple; you will recognize in Art Deco, Cycladic idols, Sumerian costume, intricacies of Persian tiles and carpets, India’s vast immensities and the bold simplicity of Athens’ black-figure ware.
Yes, of course, there is something in Deco of machined production and doodad; yet, the machine is merely the veneer; powerful archaic form is Deco’s essence. And yes, we all see in Deco the speeding train, the streamlined aeroplane, yet few know or understand how these forms came to be. An example or two should serve.
Many years ago, I taught at what was once The Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, founded 1906 (five years after France’s Society of Decorative Artists, from which “Art Deco” derives its name). Before me, Samuel Cashwan (1900–1988) chaired a sculpture department where he would instruct students to model a face in clay, change the face into an automobile grill (its façade), then change the auto façade back into a face. Do you notice in early industrial design the anthropomorphism of train, plane, and auto … this is no accident.
Too, you should know, Cashwan later was a designer at General Motors. Toward the end of his life, I was honored to curate his retrospective exhibition at the Center for Creative Studies “Center Galleries”, galleries that I founded in the mid-1980s. Cashwan’s student, Lou Redstone (a personal mentor, of whom more in this Deco edition of The Beautiful Home), became an architect of world renown, a pioneer of the Art Deco style, the Streamline Moderne, and the International.
And more of personal reflection and illumination … while yet a student at The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I opened my first studio at the Art Deco, Greyhound Bus Station. There, I founded Arborware (early 1980s), a company of decorative and useful arts. Some Arborware products can yet be found, here-and-there, including the gold tigers on tiger-eye alabaster bases, pearls standing in for baseballs …these, models of tiger statues designed for Thomas Monaghan’s new Tiger Baseball Park (unrealized).
As you might know, Ann Arbor is rich in Art Deco of the high-style, poor in the cheap streamlined. Two of Ann Arbor’s favorite sons, brothers Irving and Allen Pond, were among the architects who created high-style Art Deco, a decorative fullness informed by the Arts & Crafts, and scholarship. Their Michigan Union building (constructed upon land once the Pond family farm) became a model for university union halls, and is brother to the Michigan League building, the hall for university women. In those gentle, wise days, we understood the unified, separate purposes of the male and female, their unique honors and mutual respect. Telling of the period, the Pond brothers expressed their hope that the Michigan League design would assist “development towards perfection of character”.
It is worth noting that Pond & Pond were students of architect William LeBaron Jenney, a Classive who developed the steel framework which made the high-rise possible, that the brothers grew the modern Classive style with its unique Chicago variant, that Irving Pond was a poet and essayist who composed several influential books and who contributed to Stickley’s The Craftsman. And yet, most remember Irving Kane Pond for scoring the first touchdown in University of Michigan history (versus the “Purple Stockings” of Racine College, 1879). Our first cheer, “Pond Forever!” is yet heard on the field and read in the annals of Michigan football.
I have in my collection a blueprint of the high-style Deco, Rackham Graduate School building, Smith, Hinchman & Grylls architects, with assistance by William E. Kapp, an architect whose stylistic mastery spanned the Beaux-Arts through the International. In my book with Martha Keller, Public Art in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, 1995…
So very much to tell of Art Deco’s stylistic mergings, its departures and reunitings, yet this brief, personal musing is overlong. So here, an ending. Later, more on the conglomerate Deco, the Nouveau into the Craftsman through Deco into the Streamlined, into the soulless International, that old Progressive style devoid of all that is Beautiful, Good and True, of all that is human, all that is humane.
In conclusion: Art Deco is a Classive style because it participates in the Beautiful, Good and True, the archaic through the Classical into our day of Classive Enlightened Liberty. Art Deco is modern Classive, in-as-much as a century-old style can be modern. More on this and other telling details of the Art Deco style in The Beautiful Home’s “Your House, Style & Period”, soon.
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Featured image, Art Deco style tympanum, Rockefeller Center, Lee Lawrie, sculptor. credit: Lee Snider Photo Images
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Thank you to the readers who have sent notes of inquiry … most appreciated. These next months, postings will be slow yet steady, the style editions spanning two months rather than one month. And then, since asked, I will answer, following the Art Deco style, editions on Sacred Architecture, Neighborhoods, and the once and future city, Aegea.
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