Monday, June 24, 2019


Author's Note: I'll be at my home-away-from-home in Suzhou, China for the months of July and August, and because those big bad socialists block Google and therefore Blogger, I won't be able to post new Architext blogs while I'm there  So, dear readers, I'm choosing a few of my favorite past blogs for an encore presentation. Hopefully you'll find them worth a repeat or, if you haven't read them before, an interesting first.  —Arrol Gellner

La Maîtrise Pavillon for Galeries Lafayette, among the
fantastical structures that introduced the public to Art Deco
at the Paris Exposition in 1925.
In April 1925, an exposition opened in Paris that was to influence American design for the next twenty years. It carried the unwieldy moniker: L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes . However, the name of the style it gave birth to is short and sweet: Art Deco.

The Exposition was meant to showcase only the most modern European design, whether in architecture or consumer products, so no historically-based decoration was allowed.  Instead one found a gaggle of fresh new motifs based on simple geometry: chevrons, flutes, zigzags and rays, as well as some highly stylized floral forms.

 William Van Alen's Chrysler
Building of 1930, whose pinnacle
is perhaps the best known
Art Deco structure in America.
By 1926, such design—which would not be called Art Deco until long after the fact—was already filtering into the American psyche via shop displays and movie sets. Also that year, architect Timothy Pfleuger wowed San Franciscans with his pointedly non-traditional Pacific Telephone Company building, thereby putting the style on the architectural map as well. In 1930, architect William Van Alen completed perhaps the most famous Art Deco structure around, the Chrysler building. In 1931, Pfleuger doubled down with his spectacular Paramount Theater in Oakland, another acknowledged masterpiece of the Art Deco era.

Art Deco remained a commercial style for the most part, yet residential architecture couldn’t help but be affected by it. For those architects and builders brave enough to break away from the traditional styles of the day, Art Deco brought a whole new look to housing. In many ways, it emulated Bauhaus design, with its flat roofs, curved walls, and bands of windows; yet true Bauhaus adherents would have been aghast at the further addition of strident colors and wild geometric motifs such as ziggurats, sunbursts, and lightning bolts.

The lobby of the Oakland Paramount Theater, designed by
Timothy Pfleuger and completed in 1931,
features the ultra-Deco "Fountain of Light".
In the mid 1930s, Art Deco branched into a related style known as Streamline Moderne. Its features were derived less from the Paris exposition than from industrial designers such as Raymond Leowy, who throughout the decade had been madly reshaping everything from typewriters to steam locomotives to mimic the fluid lines of modern aircraft. In 1935, Leowy painted “speed lines”on the nose of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s new streamlined S1 locomotives, suggesting the streaking of an object in motion. Ironically, this decorative device became a favorite motif on Deco and Moderne homes as well, despite the fact that these houses clearly weren’t going anywhere.

Raymond Loewy poses on the Pennsylvania Railroad's
S1 locomotive of 1939, whose heavily speedlined cowling
gave it a look of motion even when standing still.
By the eve of World War II, the palette of Deco/Moderne was well defined: stucco walls (often curved); glass block (often curved as well); steel casement windows; vitreous tile (an opaque glass wall finish available in various colors, though most commonly found in black);  stainless steel and chrome accents; and the now-familiar geometric ornament in low relief.

In years after World War II, a renewed sense of American pride led buyers back to the more home-grown look of Colonials and Ranchers, and the high-voltage era of Deco/Moderne quietly faded out like a dying battery. Since the style never really caught on with tract builders, Art Deco residences are quite rare, often appearing singly among the more popular bungalows and cottages of the era.

A small Art Deco jewel in San Franciso, circa
the late 1930s.
(Image courtesy of
The unique design of Art Deco and Moderne homes brings with it a number of characteristic troubles. The flat roofs and lack of overhangs beloved by this style often translate into maddeningly persistent leaks, as do the often poorly-waterproofed stucco details. Also, the  ubiquitous steel sash found in these houses—the leading-edge window technology of the 1930s—has a propensity to both rusting and sticking shut due to accumulated layers of paint.  

But hey, a Deco jewel is worth a little trouble, oui?

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