Art Deco Architecture

A mix of smooth swirls, curves and high-gloss finishes, art deco style evokes 1930s movie star glamour.

If you've seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance, you're probably well acquainted with art deco style -- the swirls and curves, the steps and mirrors, the 1930s movie-star glam.

The style was partially inspired by artifacts discovered in 1922 in King Tut's tomb, and many art deco buildings include the repeating designs and vivid color common in Egyptian artwork.

Though it draws heavily from antiquity, art deco was considered ultramodern at the height of its popularity, with some of the first deco designs coming from the edgy Bauhaus School in Germany. The style combines the circular, trapezoidal and rectangular motifs of the Machine Age with the high-gloss finishes and glamorous black-and-white color palette of the silver screen.

Art deco’s appeal began to fade in the 1940s. However, it enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s, when Miami’s South Beach arose from the ashes of neglect to become a colorful art deco vacation paradise, and post-modern architecture around the world re-popularized fanciful touches on building exteriors.

Key Elements

  • Flat roofs.
  • Smooth walls. The walls of art deco homes are often made of smooth stucco and have rounded corners.
  • Bold exterior decorations. Buildings in the style were often decorated with zigzags, swans, lilies and sunrise motifs.
  • Experimentation with interior materials. Art deco designers used "new" materials such as glass block, neon, chrome, mirrors and opaque glass panels.

Famous Examples

  • Chrysler Building. Perhaps the most famous example of art deco architecture is the Chrysler Building in New York City. Just a few blocks to the north, the Empire State building is another art deco gem.

  • In Chicago, the McGraw Hill Building and the Powhatan Apartments epitomize art deco style.

  • The hotels in Miami’s South Beach -- and newer buildings throughout South Florida -- combine deco lines with pastel colors.

Practically Speaking: Hassles and Headaches

Because art deco interior style often includes a lot of mirrors and glass, it may not be the best style for young families or those with exuberant house pets. Also, because original art deco apartments were built before the introduction of many modern conveniences, you may have to consider the cost of re-wiring for electricity and installing air conditioning as in any older apartment. But before you break out the sledgehammers and screwdrivers (or, better yet, before you buy) make sure the building you want to buy in isn’t landmarked; if it is, there may be restrictions on how much of the architecture you can change.

House Hunting

The art deco style was used more often for office buildings than for private homes, so you’re not likely to find a deco home with a yard and a garage in most geographic areas. Miami Beach and Tulsa, Okla., do have residential art deco districts, and every once in a while, a deco home comes on the market in an unexpected place -- outside of Philadelphia, say, or in a residential enclave in Cincinnati.

Is your heart set on deco living? Skip suburbia and look closer to big city centers. There are art deco apartment buildings sprinkled about New York City and Chicago, and deco-style condos have been built (or converted from former office spaces) in Phoenix, Atlanta and many other major cities around the U.S.

Decorating Deco

If you are lucky enough to find an apartment with an art deco vibe, don’t fight it! Furnishings strongly associated with other periods will overpower its period charm, so don't plop your overstuffed shabby chic sofa into the living room. Instead, look for genuine art deco pieces at local antiques stores, or online sources like 1stdibs.com -- or purchase quality reproductions at better furniture stores. Don’t want to overdose on deco? Select neutral, modern furnishings and let the architecture speak for itself.


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