18th Sep 2020
It’ll be a long while before international travel becomes safe and sanitary. But we can but dream about elegant cities, right?
Think Art Deco, think Manhattan, but the design movement originated in Paris. In 1925, the City of Light hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes – an exhibition showing the world that the country was back open for business after the ravages of the First World War. This new “style moderne” encompassed all the decorative arts, from architecture to fashion, with motifs including clean, geometric lines, steel and concrete, sunburst ornamentation and exquisite craftsmanship. This blueprint, though, was heralded more than a decade earlier, by Auguste Perret’s Théatre des Champs-Elysées, whose harmony of functionality and ornamentation set the standard for Art Deco design everywhere. See also the facade of the cabaret theatre Folies-Bergère, which made a star of the Jazz Age idol Josephine Baker.
Théatre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Paris’ “style moderne” spread like wildfire and it wasn’t long before British cities started tapping into the global trend for understated luxury. Claridge’s hotel, in its present guise, dates back to 1856, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that it secured its status as an Art Deco megastar, enlisting designers Oswald Milne, Basil Ionides and René Lalique for its public spaces and suites. But it wasn’t just a trend for high society. Battersea Power Station (now Tate Modern), Carreras Cigarette Factory (now offices) and The Hoover Building (one part Tesco, one part new-to-the-market luxury apartments) are all elegantly utilitarian.
Claridge’s hotel, London
Most offices aren’t as grand as the Carbide and Carbon Building or Chicago Board of Trade, but then the Roaring Twenties were an interwar bubble celebrating ambition and prosperity. Such excess could never last – see F Scott Fitzgerald’s portentous The Great Gatsby, and then the Great Depression – but its legacy is visible on many a Chicago street corner.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation runs several guided walking tours, one of which explores Art Deco in Downtown. The organisation is also the brains behind Open House Chicago, which invites interiors nosey parkers into mansions, theatres, private clubs and secret spaces every October (even during covid) and without charging a dime.
Carbide and Carbon Building, Chicago
Pastel hues, curvilinear shapes, neon signs. South Beach is so synonymous with Art Deco that it’s hard to imagine what it might look like now, had politicians and property developers replaced them with “modern” condos and high-rises in the 1970s. These historic beauties had fallen into disrepair – until Barbara Baer Capitman came to the rescue in 1977 by forming the Miami Design Preservation League. Within two years, she and her supporters had a square-mile Art Deco district listed on the National Register of Historic Places on which it remains. The MDPL continues to thrive, organising walking tours and Art Deco Weekends every January, offering live music, tours, a classic car show, lectures, screenings and children’s activities.
Photo credit: Al Higgins, Miami
Last, but by no means least, New York City boasts some of the world’s best, pioneering examples of Art Deco design. During the Jazz Age, architects and engineers literally reached for the stars, creating surging skyscrapers that became instant icons, many of which were unveiled right after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, among them the Chrysler Building, the Empire State, Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. There’s a wealth of info on the Art Deco Society of New York’s website for “Deco on Demand” tours if you’re not actually in the Big Apple right now.
Photo credit: freetoursbyfoot.com, Crown of Chrysler Building, NYC
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