Art Deco Architecture: A Fusion of Style and Function

Ian Mutuli
Updated on
Ian Mutuli

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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An accurate representation of the Roaring Twenties, Art Deco architecture is a unique blend of luxury and functionality. But what makes it stand out among other architectural styles? This article will explore the history, characteristics, and significance of this unique architectural style and include some notable examples in history and today. Let’s dive right in!

What Is Art Deco Architecture?

Art Deco Style

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Art Deco architecture is a style of architecture and design that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, characterized by bold geometric shapes, lavish ornamentation, and the use of new materials such as stainless steel and plastic. It came after the Art Nouveau style and is also known as Style Moderne. The style started as a decorative arts movement that quickly spread across Western Europe and the United States.

Art Deco architecture got its name from Paris’ 1925 Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes).

Outside of architecture, Art Deco also refers to fashion. Art Deco fashion also emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. Like in architecture, the fashion emphasized modernity and luxury and often featured intricate beading, sequins, and other embellishments. The fashion was geared towards the wealthy and elite, who often wore it in the context of evening wear and formal events.

In relation to architecture, this style was heavily influenced by the machine age and modern technology. It often featured stylized motifs inspired by ancient civilizations, such as Egypt and East Asia. The style is famous for buildings, from skyscrapers and office buildings to theaters, hotels, and apartment buildings.

The Art Deco period will take you back to post-World War II as it emerged during a time of great economic prosperity and social change. It is associated with the wealthy post-war bourgeoisie who wanted a new kind of architecture that reflected their status and aspirations.

But what made the style so popular? The answer lies in its characteristics, as seen below.

Key Characteristics Of the Art Deco Architecture

Key Characteristics Of the Art Deco Architecture

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Suppose you are walking around your city trying to spot Art Deco buildings; here are the characteristics you should find.

a) Geometric Shapes

Art Deco Geometry

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One of the most recognizable characteristics of Art Deco architecture is its use of bold, geometric shapes. Famous architects of the time incorporated geometric patterns and shapes, such as circles, triangles, and zigzags, into the design of buildings or structures. They used these shapes to create a sense of movement and dynamism, visual interest, and excitement. The forms were often abstract and stylized to create a sense of modernity and innovation.

When looking at geometric shapes, you will notice similarities between the Art Deco design and Gothic architecture’s geometric forms. Both styles use geometric shapes in their designs but use them differently and for different purposes.

Unlike the Art Deco style, Gothic architecture uses geometric shapes in a more structural and functional way. The pointed arch, for example, is a distinctive feature of Gothic architecture used to create a sense of height and grandeur, to increase the amount of light inside the building, and to distribute weight more effectively.

In short, Art Deco geometric elements are primarily for aesthetics, while Gothic’s are structural because they create harmony, balance, and support the weight of all building structures.

b) Ornamentation

Art Deco Ornamentation

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Another defining characteristic of Art Deco architecture is its use of lavish ornamentation. Architects incorporated intricate patterns and motifs, such as sunbursts, zigzags, and chevrons, into the design of buildings and other structures. The ornamentation created a sense of luxury and opulence and was often made of expensive materials such as marble, chrome, and glass.

c) Materials

An Art Deco building used new materials such as stainless steel and plastic, which became widely available in the 1920s and 1930s. These materials were used to create a sense of modernity and innovation and were often combined with traditional materials such as brick and stone. Using new materials also allowed architects to create new forms and shapes, pushing the boundaries of design.

d) Symmetrical Design

Art Deco Symmetry

Image Credits: archdaily.com

As mentioned above, Art Deco architecture was used more in wealthy societies and required a sense of grandeur and elegance. To achieve this, architects used symmetry to not only create elegant buildings but also to create harmony and balance through design elements.

Most Art Deco-style architecture was found in large-scale public buildings such as government buildings, hotels, and department stores. These buildings often needed to reflect the institution’s prestige or appeal to a wealthy clientele. As such, symmetry in these types of buildings helped establish a sense of formality and importance.

e) Windows

Art Deco Building Windows

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Art Deco windows used metal frames, such as stainless steel or aluminum, which were a new and modern material at the time. They are often characterized by their geometric shapes and tend to be elongated and vertical, giving buildings a more slender and taller appearance. The use of geometric shapes in window design also ties in with the overall usage of geometric shapes in Art Deco architecture, creating a sense of visual cohesiveness.

Art Deco windows often have large panes of glass, which helped to create a sense of transparency and openness in the building, allowing natural light to flood the interiors. This not only helped to reduce the need for artificial lighting but also helped to create a sense of visual connection between the interior and exterior of the building.

f) Parapets and Spires

A parapet is a low wall atop a roof or along the edge of a terrace. In Art Deco, parapets are often used to create a sense of drama and excitement and a sense of movement and flow in the design of the building.

A spire is a tall, slender tower or pinnacle often used as a decorative architectural element. In Art Deco, spires were often used to create a sense of height and grandeur.

Examples of Art Deco Buildings

Now that you know how to identify Art Deco elements, here are some classical buildings and structures inspired by the Art Deco movement.

1. The Empire State Building

The Empire State Building

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The Empire State Building, located in New York City, is a prime example of Art Deco architecture. Completed in 1931, the building was designed by architects Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon and was the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion.

The building features a series of geometric shapes prominently featured in the building’s spire, which defines the building’s silhouette. In addition, the building sports a symmetric design, with the central core of the building being surrounded by a series of setbacks that create a sense of balance and proportion.

The Empire State Building’s use of Art Deco design elements not only adds to the building’s aesthetic appeal but also helps to convey the building’s purpose as a symbol of American progress and prosperity. It’s considered one of the world’s most famous and iconic buildings, and it continues to be a popular tourist destination and a symbol of New York City.

2. The Chrysler Building

The Chrysler Building

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The Chrysler Building, found in New York City, was completed in 1930 and was the tallest building in the world until the completion of the Empire State Building the following year. Architect William Van Alen designed the building.

It is another building that beautifully portrays the Art Deco style, especially with its numerous ornamentations such as eagles, hubcaps, and hood ornaments. The building sports Art Deco interior design” data-wpil-keyword-link=”linked”>interior design, especially the stepped profile that, using recessed upper floors, gives the structure more visual height.

The building’s steel frame is clad in a combination of terracotta and stainless steel. The terracotta was used to create the building’s decorative elements, while the stainless steel was used to develop a sense of modernity and reflect the fast-paced nature of the era in which it was built. The Chrysler building is an architectural masterpiece in the US.

3. Christ The Redeemer Statue

Christ The Redeemer Statue

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The famous Christ, the Redeemer statue of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a prime example of Art Deco architecture. It stands 98 feet tall and is made of reinforced concrete and soapstone. The statue was completed in 1931 and was designed by French sculptor Paul Landowski with the help of Brazilian engineer Heitor da Silva Costa.

Art Deco is visible through the statue’s triangular shapes, most prominently featured in the statue’s arms, which are outstretched in a welcoming gesture. In addition, the statue’s body is symmetrical, which creates a sense of balance and proportion.

Finally, the statue’s ornamentation is an example of Art Deco design. The statue features intricate details, such as the patterns on the robe, and the use of materials, such as reinforced concrete and soapstone, to highlight the timeless modernity of the structure.

4. The Chicago Board of Trade Building

The Chicago Board of Trade Building

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The Chicago Board of Trade Building, located in Chicago, Illinois, was completed in 1930. The Art Deco building was designed by architects Holabird & Root and was the tallest building in Chicago at the time of its completion.

One of the critical characteristics of the building’s design is its strong vertical lines, which create a sense of height and grandeur. The building features a series of vertical piers, a defining feature of Art Deco architecture and used to create a sense of visual interest and movement.

The building’s intricate details, including the friezes, depict the history of commerce. It also sports the Ceres on the top of the building. These ornamental elements are typical of the Art Deco style, emphasizing elaborate ornamentation and symbolic imagery.

Finally, the iconic building has a steel frame clad in limestone, which was used to create the building’s decorative elements. So, the materials portray good employment of Art Deco and highlight the building’s solidity and permanence.

5. The Daily Express Building

The Daily Express Building

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The Daily Express Building in Manchester, England, was completed in 1939. The building was designed by architect Sir Owen Williams and is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the United Kingdom.

One of the building’s most notable elements is its use of black and glass. The building’s exterior is mostly black, which creates a sense of sleekness and modernity, fitting the building’s purpose as a newspaper office. The use of glass is also an important aspect of the building’s design, especially the large windows, which flood the interior with natural light and create a feeling of openness and transparency.

Finally, the building’s design is also notable for its use of symmetry, which is a vital element of the Art Deco style. The building’s facade is symmetrical, with a central entrance and a series of evenly spaced windows.

6. The Chapman Building

The Chapman Building

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The Chapman Building, designed by architect Morien Eugene Durfee for Fullerton Mayor Charles Clarke (CC) in California, is a prime example of the Art Deco style in American architecture. The building was completed in the 1920s, during the height of the Art Deco movement.

One of the building’s most notable elements is its use of vertical lines. The building stands six stories tall and features a series of vertical piers, typical of the Art Deco style and used to emphasize the building’s verticality and modernity. The building’s design also features an emphasis on windows that are large and evenly spaced, which is ideal for natural light.

The building’s materials combine painted brick and masonry with terra cotta details, corbels, and cable moldings. These materials create the building’s decorative elements, such as the geometric patterns on the facade, thus highlighting the design’s solidity.

7. The Edificio Kavanagh

The Edificio Kavanagh

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The Edificio Kavanagh, located in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a prime example of the Art Deco style blended with rationalist architecture. The building was completed in the 1930s.

One of the building’s most notable design elements is its height. The building stands 31 stories tall, which was an impressive feat of engineering for its time, and it was the tallest building in South America when it was completed. Architects Gregorio Sánchez, Ernesto Lagos, and Luis Maria de la Torre blended the Art Deco style, which emphasizes ornamental decoration and the use of materials such as marble, granite, and glass, with the rationalist style, which emphasizes functionality, simplicity, and geometric shapes.

The building’s interiors are also luxurious and opulent, featuring marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and an ornate chandelier. At the same time, a stepped terrace breaks down the height of the building and gives it a sense of movement and dynamism.

8. The Waldorf Astoria Hotel

The Waldorf Astoria Hotel

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The Waldorf Astoria Hotel has been a popular choice for dignitaries, from presidents, royalty, and celebrities, who appreciate its luxurious amenities. Built in 1931, the New York hotel is a testament to the glamour and opulence of the Art Deco era. 

One of its most unique elements is its use of marble. The hotel’s lobby is adorned with marble mantels, flooring, and walls, which create a sense of grandeur and luxury. The hotel also features French gilded overmantel mirrors, a defining feature of the Art Deco style that adds a sense of visual interest and movement.

The hotel underwent a facelift in 2017-2019, where it was renovated and updated while preserving its original art deco design. The renovation included the restoration of many of the hotel’s original Art Deco elements, such as the marble mantels and gilded overmantel mirrors, as well as the addition of new amenities, such as a spa and fitness center.

9. The Marina City Towers

The Marina City Towers

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The Marina City Towers in Chicago, Illinois, are a prime example of the Art Deco architectural style. The towers were designed by the famous architect Bertrand Goldberg and were completed in 1964.

One of the most striking features of the Marina City Towers is their unique round shape and corncob design, which is highly reminiscent of the Art Deco style’s emphasis on geometric shapes and clean lines. The towers are also decorated with bands of windows, which add visual interest and movement to the buildings.

The towers also feature materials such as concrete and steel, which are typical of the Art Deco style and were used to create a sense of modernity and industrial strength. The buildings’ exteriors are finished with painted brick, glass, and aluminum.

10. The Rockefeller Center

The Rockefeller Center

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The New York City Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 commercial buildings built between 1932 and 1940. It is one of the most iconic examples of Art Deco architecture in the United States. The center’s design was led by architects Raymond Hood and Wallace Harrison.

A striking feature of the Rockefeller Center is its skyscraper design, which is highly reminiscent of the Art Deco style’s emphasis on verticality and the use of setbacks. The buildings have terraces with gardens on top that are set back from the street, creating a sense of visual hierarchy and giving the complex a sense of grandeur.

The buildings are decorated with ornate sculptural reliefs and friezes, typical of the Art Deco style’s emphasis on decorative elements. The complex also features a set of giant statues, such as the Prometheus statue, which decorates the center’s promenade.

The Rockefeller Center also features a variety of amenities, such as the famous skating rink and the observation deck, which were designed to appeal to a modern and active lifestyle; this is also a characteristic of the Art Deco style architecture.

In a Nutshell

As you can see, Art Deco architecture was a major cultural and design movement that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. With its fusion of style and function, Art Deco buildings are characterized by sleek lines, geometric shapes, and rich, stylish details.

From the Christ The Redeemer statue in Brazil to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, Art Deco has left an indelible mark on the architectural landscape. Whether you are an architecture buff or simply appreciate the beauty of the built environment, Art Deco is sure to leave a lasting impression.

So the next time you see an Art Deco building, take a moment to appreciate its beauty and the innovative spirit of the designers who created it!

Ian Mutuli

About the author

Ian Mutuli

Founder and Managing Editor of Archute. He is also a graduate architect from The University of Nairobi, Kenya.
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