Art Deco Architecture & Buildings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever looked up at a building and wondered about its design? Or stood and marveled at shiny surfaces and stylish decorations on a skyscraper? If so, you could have been seeing elements of Art Deco. In this lesson, we're going to explore Art Deco architecture and buildings.

Beginnings of Art Deco

Art Deco was a twentieth-century art movement and part of Modernism (an emphasis in the arts to pursue new styles and types of imagery to express a new century). As a style, Art Deco traces its beginning to a specific time and place in France. It developed as a result of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Moderns (the International Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts), held in Paris in 1925. The show highlighted a crisp and bold look and featured art and stylish luxury goods from throughout Europe. It was a huge success, and the style that came out of it quickly spread around the world.

Art deco as an art movement included architecture but also much more. You can see examples of the style in fabric, ceramics, jewelry, glassware, painting and sculpture. In terms of architecture, the style was used mostly on commercial buildings. You don't see it often on homes or residential structures. Think of businesses, skyscrapers, and movie theaters -- places that an owner wanted to feature, or make a statement about success and the modern age.

Senator Theater in Chico, California
Senator Theater

Here's an example. The Senator Theater in Chico, California, built between 1927 and 1928 features a dramatic Art Deco design with a tower embellished in gold and topped by a very simplified geometric diamond. Imagine going to the movies in a place like this!

Materials and Characteristics of Art Deco

Architects who designed Art Deco buildings used industrial materials like steel and aluminum, or new materials like glass block and an opaque decorative plate glass known as vitrolite. They covered surfaces in stucco (an exterior cement plaster coating), concrete, or terracotta, materials that resulted in smooth wall surfaces. They wanted a streamlined look with strong vertical emphasis. In many Art Deco buildings, you can recognize geometric forms that thrust upward, often including stepped forms or ziggurats (a step-pyramid form where each layer of the building is a bit smaller as you get higher). The tower of the Senator Theater is a good example of this.

Many Art Deco buildings feature decorations made with techniques like lacquering and glazing to create bold ornamental design elements that were often in low relief (you can see the design, but it doesn't stick out too far from the surface). Art Deco style could include animals, people, or abstract geometric designs. These figures are always very angular and stylized, sometimes elongated and simplified. They don't look like real people or animals.

Close up of Niagara Mohawk Building in Syracuse, New York
NiMo Building

The Niagara Mohawk Building in Syracuse, New York, built in 1932, is a great example of Art Deco materials. The structure was built as the headquarters of an electric power company. The surface is decorated with stainless steel and black vitrolite in a strong and vertical geometric pattern. This image includes a winged figure known as the Spirit of Energy or the Spirit of Light. He looks strong and noble but certainly not like a real person!

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