Art Deco Architecture: Characteristics, History & Definition

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 visited Rockefeller Center or the Chrysler Building in New York City? Both famous structures are examples of a style called Art Deco. In this lesson, explore the history and characteristics of Art Deco architecture.

What is Art Deco?

Art Deco is the name given to an art and design style popular in Europe and America from the mid-1920s until before World War II. It traced its beginnings to the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes, an international design show held in Paris in 1925. The artists, designers and architects who worked in Art Deco wanted to create a modern style for a modern age and they purposely avoided echoes of past styles. The name 'Art Deco', by the way, comes from the title of that international show.

Art Deco celebrated the modern world and industry and developed from what people saw as the promise of the machine age. It was sleek and sophisticated, featuring smooth surfaces and bold colors in high contrasts like black and white. It was influenced by several modern art movements, including Cubism, where shapes were portrayed as fragmented with multiple perspectives viewable at once. There's an angularity to Art Deco. Architecture done in this style is hard-edged and geometric, often with a stepped outline.

History of Art Deco Architecture

Art Deco elements became noticeable in Paris in the early 1920s. But for architecture, the first real signal of a new style came in Chicago in 1922. There, a Finnish architect named Eliel Saarinen entered architectural drawings in a contest to design the new headquarters building of the Chicago Tribune. He didn't win the contest, but his design received a lot of publicity and inspired other architects to explore the new, bold style.

In 1924, one of those other architects, Raymond Hood (he'd won the Chicago contest), designed the American Radiator Building in New York City, the structure usually regarded as the first Art Deco building in the United States. Soon Art Deco became a popular choice in major American cities, which at the time were experiencing a tremendous building boom. Through the 1930s, Art Deco was used on structures that became landmarks. In New York alone, famous skyscrapers like the Empire State Building (1931), the Chrysler Building (1930) and Rockefeller Center (1935), are all examples of Art Deco architecture.

View of the top of the Chrysler Building in New York
Top of the Chrysler Building

While such American skyscrapers were the grandest structures of Art Deco, places in Europe also reflected the style. Examples of Art Deco architecture can be found in major urban centers like London, Berlin, and Lisbon, Portugal, as well as more unexpected places like Kaunas, Lithuania.

Characteristics of Art Deco Architecture

Art Deco architecture is very striking and looks different from earlier styles. You'll definitely notice it when you see it. Builders used used new industrial materials like stucco, concrete and stainless steel. You can also find structures decorated with aluminum, chrome, opaque plate glass, and glass block.

Example of an Art Deco theater building. Notice the opaque plate glass exterior wall surfaces and the glass blocks in the tower.
theater with plate glass and glass block

There's a strong vertical emphasis, too. Everything points up. Art Deco structures feature considerable surface decoration, especially around the tops of skyscrapers. Look also at the areas around windows and doors. Many buildings had surface decorations above doors and windows done in low relief that combined geometric patterns and figures. One good example is a relief panel from the lobby of the Daily Express Building in London. Contrasting tones of gold and silver highlight angular figures. The central figure has strong vertical emphasis.

Sculptural relief in the lobby of the Daily Express Building in London
Relief in Daily Express Building

Popular design elements in Art Deco included geometric shapes like the pyramid; the chevron, an inverted V shape connected to form zigzag lines; and lightning bolts. Art Deco also sometimes used stylized images from nature like waterfalls, sunrises, and palm tree leaves. You can see arched sunrise-like figures on the top of the Chrysler Building.

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