American Deco Divine
Published: May 2009
By Stephen Drucker
A newly opened retrospective devoted to the history of Art Deco reveals that the 20th century's most glamorous style reached its peak in the United States.<br>
Plus: 13 places to get your Deco fix from coast to coast.
Since art deco began looking good again in the 1970's, the French, in that endearing French way, have convinced themselves and the world that they were solely responsible for it, that it was introduced in 1925 at the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs, and that French Art Deco is the most important Art Deco. They almost got away with it.
The British curators of "Art Deco: 1910-1939" were having none of that theory. This highly entertaining show, which originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London last summer and recently began its American tour in San Francisco, manages to get beyond the clichés that are usually hauled out when Art Deco is the subject. Never before has the style been seen for the pandemic it was, leaping from continent to continent and flourishing in wildly different forms for three decades.
Art Deco was the design world's answer to jazz. A series of improvisations, it was one riff after another on the moods and themes of the early 20th century. The style began with outrageously luxurious bespoke items; as it matured, it grew leaner so that it could be mass-produced, yet it lost none of its thrill. Spreading Deco fast and far were the new media of its time: magazine photography and, especially, the movies. As the show says, "It was modern, and it was everywhere."
And how could anybody resist it?Most Art Deco was about as deep as disco music, serving no higher purpose than pleasure and escape. Mostly it was created around the world of the night. Looking back, you might think that for 30 years everybody had long fingers and narrow, pointy feet and awakened at sunset only to drink and smoke and stand at strange angles. This was a time when blue wasn't blue, it was eau de Nil.
World War II put an end to this taste for glamour, but what a record was left behind. Only the V&A would have the nerve to attempt to sort it out, much less keep the mood light. Although the show has its share of important furniture and scholarly labels, they're widely scattered among diamonds, evening dresses, film clips, photographs, slinky portraits of maharajahs, and one very large, sexy roadster—all with big bands swinging and chanteuses heaving their bosoms as you move between the displays. You'll wish you could buy the sound track. You can.
Which Art Deco is the best Art Deco is a question the show doesn't try to answer. The French certainly win the prize for craftsmanship, with their ivory microdots, shagreen panels, and maniacal inlays of crushed eggshell, but their obsession with luxury and matched suites of furniture can leave you gasping for air. British Art Deco is much friendlier but awfully horsey. The Italians and Swedes and Chinese and Indians certainly had their share of fun, but didn't really produce enough to call Deco their own.
It all came together best in the United States. The show saves us for last, culminating in a big production number that seems to say that we created not only more Art Deco but also its biggest and most enduring icons, in the skyline of Manhattan. Americans were especially susceptible to the themes of Deco: speed, technology, Hollywood fantasies, a preference for the future over the past, and the constitutional right of every stenographer to feel like an heiress. And of course we were grateful to have something new to manufacture and sell during the Depression. America manufactured and sold Art Deco like there was no tomorrow, at a time when it must have seemed there wasn't one.
How much Art Deco could there once have been for so much to have survived?This morning I visited eBay and searched for "Deco." There were 17,707 items for sale.
"Art Deco: 1910-1939" is on view through July 4 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco (34th Ave. and Clement St.; 415/863-3330; www.famsf.org). From August 22 through January 9, 2005, it will be at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (465 Huntington Ave.; 617/267-9300; www.mfa.org).
STEPHEN DRUCKER, a contributing writer at Architectural Digest, has been collecting Art Deco for 30 years.
Art Deco can be found in virtually every town in the country, no matter how small, whether in a WPA courthouse or the curving glass façade of a derelict shoe store. Here is a highly personal romp around the country that shows the style in its many moods.
1 CHRYSLER BUILDING, NEW YORK CITY
It hasn't been the world's tallest skyscraper since 1931, but this building is still Top Hat Deco at its pinnacle. Tap-dance your way through a revolving door and wrap your imagination around the woodwork of the elevator cabs. Look up, look down, and don't forget to look back at the sign that says 42ND STREET. 405 LEXINGTON AVE. While you're here, cross the street and visit the lobby of the Chanin Building (122 E. 42nd St.)—a different strain of Deco, but no less enthusiastic.
2 ROCKEFELLER CENTER AND RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL, NEW YORK CITY
Rockefeller Center is the Acropolis of Art Deco, and Radio City the Parthenon. At the Center, notable for its power and sobriety, every detail is worth a closer look, from the perpetual dusk of the 30 Rockefeller Plaza lobby, with its murals of buff laborers heaving and ho-ing, to the glass panel over the Fifth Avenue entrance of Façonnable (best after dark, when it's illuminated). At Radio City, don't miss the carpeting and the sublime Donald Deskey furniture (what little remains of it), and peek through every open door you encounter. Highlights include the mezzanine level men's smoking room and women's powder room. BETWEEN FIFTH AVE. AND AVE. OF THE AMERICAS FROM 47TH TO 51ST STS.
3 ART DECO HISTORIC DISTRICT, MIAMI BEACH
Eat, breathe, and live Deco in a collection of streamlined buildings unrivaled in the history of escapism. Imagine leaving a Chicago or Detroit winter for this curvy land of mermaids, bubbles, and speed lines—and there are no sharp corners to hurt yourself on. Still, it's best not to look too closely. This beauty really is only skin-deep. BETWEEN OCEAN DR. AND LENOX AVE. FROM SIXTH TO 23RD STS.
4 FILM CENTER BUILDING, NEW YORK CITY
You'd never know that a spectacular example of Mayan Deco awaits you in the tiny lobby of this otherwise unremarkable commercial building. Ely Jacques Kahn jazzed up many of his office buildings in Manhattan with bright terra-cotta tile work, and this 1928 lobby with a gold-leaf ceiling is his masterpiece: a little bit of Chichén Itzá in Hell's Kitchen. 630 NINTH AVE.
5 McGRAW-HILL BUILDING, NEW YORK CITY
You're at the far end of the Deco spectrum here, almost International Style, and indeed it's hard to know how to categorize this 1930 tour de force by Raymond Hood. It's highly streamlined, its lobby has some amazing things happening with stainless steel and glass, and—as if the design weren't enough—it's blue. 330 W. 42ND ST. Two other great blue buildings of the period are in Los Angeles: the Eastern Columbia Building (849 S. Broadway) and the Wiltern Theater (3790 Wilshire Blvd.).
6 UNION TERMINAL, CINCINNATI
Finished in 1933, the half-domed Union Terminal looks like a band shell...or is it a radio...or a utopian World's Fair pavilion?No other train station, no other Art Deco building this large, looks quite like this. The cascade of fountains leading to it is no small part of its charm. 1301 WESTERN AVE.; www.cincymuseum.org
7 GUARDIAN BUILDING, DETROIT
Have an hour to spare on your next business trip to Detroit?Here's more Mayan madness from the 1920's, but on a huge scale that will make you think twice about what this city once was. The soaring lobby includes a Tiffany clock, Rookwood pottery, and brilliantly colored ceramic tiles from the local Pewabic Pottery. Many buildings strive to evoke cathedrals; this one succeeds. 500 GRISWOLD ST.
8 PIONEER ZEPHYR, CHICAGO
This three-car train started the streamlining craze in 1934—before the decade was done, tricycles and pencil sharpeners were streamlined. When it was new, in the darkest year of the Depression, the train might as well have been a spaceship; today, its futuristic lines seem poignant. There's a lesson there somewhere. MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY, S. LAKE SHORE DR., AT 57TH ST.; www.msichicago.org
9 CASINO THEATER & BALLROOM, AVALON, CATALINA ISLAND, CALIFORNIA
Many cities have a Deco theater, but not a round one, like this landmark on an island off the southern California coast. Downstairs there's a domed movie theater with hallucinogenic murals; upstairs, overlooking the Pacific, is the most famous swing ballroom of them all, where 5,000 people used to dance the night away. It's a miracle of engineering, really—why didn't the dancing disturb everybody watching the movie?1 CASINO WAY; 310/510-0179 FOR MOVIES; FOR TOURS, 310/510-2500 OR www.scico.com/cirs/maincasino.html
10 CITY HALL, BURBANK, CALIFORNIA
Art Deco civic buildings from the WPA era abound, but Burbank may have the best of them all. Its city hall features tutti-frutti marble work, heroic murals, and a sweeping Moderne staircase on which you half expect to see Blondie and Dagwood. This was a building designed to make you believe in government again, and it does. 275 E. OLIVE AVE.
11 BULLOCKS WILSHIRE, LOS ANGELES
Once the most elegant department store in the city, Bullocks Wilshire was a highly refined example of 1920's Deco, full of sophisticated Constructivist plays on geometry. The store was already beginning its descent into a Norma Desmond-like condition when it closed after the civil unrest of 1992. Today it is home to a law school, periodically open to the public for tours. 3050 WILSHIRE BLVD.; 213/738-8240
12 COCA-COLA BOTTLING PLANT, LOS ANGELES
The SS Coca-Cola is a peculiarly American building: such a happy building, with portholes, nautical railings, and a bridge, as if it were about to set sail for Europe. This 1936 bottling plant thoroughly messes with your head by jumbling up images of travel, luxury, industry, modernity, and soft drinks. Talk about branding! 1334 S. CENTRAL AVE. (INTERIOR NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC)
13 OVIATT BUILDING, LOS ANGELES
A rare and glamorous building that has survived in downtown L.A. against all odds. Its owner visited the 1925 Paris Exposition and came back a believer, incorporating a great deal of Lalique glass in the dazzling, faceted storefront and lobby. Originally a haberdashery, today it houses the restaurant Cicada. 617 S. OLIVE ST.