Art Deco Architecture and the Rise of Modernism

Close up image of the side of a building with eagle gargoyles and art deco flourishes. The Chrysler Building. Photo by William Wachter via Unsplash.

The 1920s and ‘30s were known for contrasting ideals, but perhaps most notably the juxtaposition of the opulence of the Roaring Twenties, immediately followed by the widespread economic conservatism of the Great Depression. The turbulent times of the Depression era marked the end of the lavish trends that punctuated much of the early 20th century. Such was the case with the Art Deco movement, a style of decorative art and design defined by an interest in symmetry, geometric patterns, and bold features. During its peak, Art Deco was wildly popular among designers and architects alike as a way to visually communicate wealth and status. Outside of these disciplines, Art Deco motifs also influenced the art and fashion industries.

History of Art Deco Architecture

The Art Deco movement began at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, a design and decorative art fair held in Paris, France in 1925. Young artists and designers from around the world gathered to create a new, modern style that was unlike anything seen before. Geometric shapes, multi-level structures, and sleek decor were staples in this new style, which began to reflect the rise of wealth and industrialism present in society through these grand details.

Art Deco ideals differed greatly from the principles of the Art Nouveau movement, a style of art and design that focused on whimsical, asymmetrical lines, natural and organic shapes, and modern materials. Instead, Art Deco designers looked for new ways to view traditional shapes and design styles, using symmetry, sharp angles and geometric shapes in unexpected ways. They brought a new glamour to contemporary buildings as intricate designs—often shrouded in gold— were highly revered. Motifs were also woven into the entirety of the building’s internal and external design, establishing a prominent theme in each structure. This new movement, perceived as a modern and sophisticated style, was quick to spread throughout Europe and North America after World War I.

Art Deco influenced a variety of industries including art, fashion, furniture design, and transportation, but none were as universally recognized as Art Deco architecture. While buildings around the world borrowed elements from the Art Deco movement, American skyscrapers were perhaps the most instantly recognizable examples of this lavish style. Taking hold in the 1920s, Art Deco architecture continued on until the late 1930s, when the economic effects of the Great Depression called for subtle and constrained designs to cut costs and prioritize necessities.

Art Deco Architecture Characteristics

Art Deco emerged in response to many styles that predated it, including Art Nouveau, Bauhaus art, and Cubism. Art Deco motifs were also informed by Native American, Egyptian, and Classical art. Though it varies slightly based on the designer, the movement can be defined by the following key characteristics:

  • Sharp lines that prioritized function and emphasized the vertical composition of most Art Deco buildings.
  • Traditional and new-age materials including terracotta, stucco, and pigmented structural glass were combined to help bring a modernization to historic styles.
  • Ornate details that adorned buildings often took on Gothic or statuesque themes that included gargoyles, sunbursts, and chevron patterns to bring sophistication to newer buildings.
  • Geometric elements were a cornerstone of the style, allowing for a staggering juxtaposition between the structured framework and more rounded, decorative elements.

10 Influential Art Deco Buildings

1. The Bryant Park Hotel (1924)

Image of bryant park hotel, a dark building with gold accents

The Bryant Park Hotel. Photo via Needpix.

This Gothic-style Art Deco building, originally named the American Radiator Building, was built in 1924 by architects John Howells and Raymond Hood. Seated just outside of Bryant Park in Manhattan, the hotel was built with black bricks and golden embellishments as a symbol of coal and fire; elements that were integral to the building’s internal business at the time. Today, the hotel serves as a reminder of the importance of creativity and the confidence of New York as an up-and-coming city in the early 1920s.

2. LeVeque Tower (1927)

the leveque tower building with a blue sky behind it

The LeVeque Tower. Image by Six Flash Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Combining Art Moderne style and Art Deco details, the LeVeque Tower was completed in 1927 in Columbus, Ohio and was one of the tallest buildings in the world at the time. American architect C. Howard Crane drew inspiration from Byzantine cathedrals to design this terracotta structure. However, over time, this building began to depreciate in value because of its declining internal and external appearance. In 2015, it went through a $55 million restoration to return it to its former glory and attract new tenants. Because of this restoration, the LeVeque Tower now hosts residents and businesses alike, drawing visitors with its opulent marble interiors and overwhelming elegance.

3. Chrysler Building (1930)

Far away view of the top of the chrysler building

The Chrysler Building. Photo by Jonathan Turner via Wikimedia Commons.

This instantly-recognizable New York skyscraper was a prominent example of an Art Deco structure during its heyday. Designed by William van Alen in 1930, the Chrysler Building hosts a variety of  business and coworker spaces. Past notable tenants include Time Magazine and Texaco. The design of the building favors symmetry and geometry, two hallmarks of Art Deco style. Extravagant elements such as gargoyles and golden sunburst patterns are carefully placed throughout the highest points of the building, creating a shimmering effect when met with direct sunlight. Serving as a gleaming beacon nestled in the heart of Manhattan, the Chrysler Building has cemented its place in Art Deco history.

4. Chicago Board of Trade Building (1930)

front view of the chicago board of trade building with two surrounding buildings.

The Chicago Board of Trade building. Photo by Antoine Taveneaux via Wikimedia Commons.

A noteworthy example of Art Deco is the Chicago Board of Trade Building. Its use of repetition, congruent shapes, and emphasis on verticality helped to solidify this design as a classic Art Deco structure. What sets this building apart from other Art Deco designs, however, are its baroque elements. This is because of the thematic features the architects John A. Holabird and John Wellborn Root Jr. integrated into the design of the building. Reflecting the livestock and grain trade businesses that called this building home, the Chicago Board of Trade Building has bovine heads and wheat motifs throughout. The external structure of the building uses multiple symmetrical levels to draw attention to the height and complexity of the design without breaking from the traditional Art Deco mold.

5. Eastern Columbia Lofts (1930)

side view of the eastern columbia building and clocktower

The Eastern Columbia Building. Photo by Matthew McNulty via Wikimedia Commons.

Dubbed the “Jewel of the West,” the Eastern Columbia Building was a shining example of Art Deco design in the greater Los Angeles area. Adorned with blue and golden embellishments, Claud Beelman’s work on this building was recognized worldwide after its construction in 1930. The loft’s grand, four-sided clock tower is known as perhaps the most iconic portion of this building which was granted special permission from the city to rise above the height limit of the time, signifying the building’s sacred status among architects and city officials alike.

6. The Hoover Building (1932)

front view of the hoover building and the front door archway

The Hoover Building. Photo by Ewan Munro via Flickr.

Designed by Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners, one of the most popular architecture firms in the 1920s and ‘30s, the Hoover Building opened in 1932 in West London and served as a manufacturing plant in its early years. The building features a white, green, and red color scheme with two towers flanking each side. Most notably, the doorway features a sunburst design of green-clad windows and geometric patterns which help to set this building apart from other manufacturing plants of the time period.

7. Cincinnati Union Terminal (1933)

Front view of the union terminal, grassy areas, sidewalk and fountain. People are walking up the stairs on the left.

The Cincinnati Union Terminal. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Union Terminal, which finished construction in 1933, was a well-loved and significant piece of Art Deco history from its unveiling. However, it did not receive National Landmark Historic status until 1973 and has since undergone several renovations to preserve its structure. Designed by Roland A. Wank, the Union Terminal features a large half-dome top, parallel leveling, and geometric supplemental structures. The building now serves as an educational and cultural hub that marks an important part of Cincinnati’s history.

8. Breakwater Hotel (1936)

street view of the breakwater hotel with palm trees and cars driving in front

The Breakwater Hotel. Photo by Phillip Pessar via Flickr.

Nestled in a string of Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive in Miami, Florida, the Breakwater Hotel was designed by Yugoslavian architect Anton Skislewicz in 1936. While the hotel has since been repainted in brighter colors to bring a resurgence of business, original Art Deco elements such as uniformity, ziggurat patterns, and symmetry remain as a reminder of the sophistication Art Deco can bring to the most unexpected places.

9. Cinema Impero (1937)

front view of the cinema with parallel and vertical windows

Cinema Impero. Photo by Sailko via Wikimedia Commons.

The characteristics of Art Deco were a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring designers and architects in many countries to create works that astounded while incorporating the cultural trends of the time. Cinema Impero was designed in 1937 by the Italian colonial authorities in Asmara, Eritrea. The theater is recognized for the vertical and symmetrical design of its elements including windows, lights, and its name plate. Today, the building’s sharp lines and minimalist composition are hallmarks of Art Deco style.

10. The Cadillac Hotel (1940)

side view of the hotel with palm trees and cars out front

The Cadillac Hotel. Photo by Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons.

The Cadillac Hotel, now owned by Marriot, was built in 1940 by architect Roy F. France in Miami, Florida. The compelling design of this Art Deco hotel is in its similarity to its namesake vehicle. With chrome trim, a hood-like scaffolding, and a streamlined composition, The Cadillac Hotel has an eye-catching design that helps it hold its own among the other Art Deco buildings in the area.

Art Deco architecture was the epitome of modern extravagance and sophistication, drawing on a variety of movements to create buildings and interiors that have astounded since their completion. This architectural movement touches a wide range of furniture, art, and decor styles that can easily be integrated into contemporary spaces.

Sources: Architectural Digest | Wentworth Studio | Elle Decor