These were the buildings of the future: sleek, geometric, dramatic. With their cubic forms and zigzag designs, art deco buildings embraced the machine age. Yet many features of the style were drawn not from the Jetsons, but the Flintstones.
During the roaring twenties and the early thirties, jazzy Art Deco architecture was the rage. Like any style, it evolved from many sources. The austere shapes of the Bauhaus School and streamlined styling of modern technology combined with patterns and icons taken from the Far East, ancient Greece and Rome, Africa, India, and Mayan and Aztec cultures. But most of all, Art Deco expressed excitement over a stunning archeological find in Egypt.
Echoes from the Tomb
In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, thrilled the world with their discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Reporters and tourists thronged the site for a glimpse at treasures which had laid nearly undisturbed for over 3,000 years. Soon a fascination for Ancient Egypt found expression in clothing, jewelry, furniture, graphic design and — of course — architecture.
The term Art Deco was coined from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) helped promote Art Deco architecture in Europe. In the United States, Art Deco was embraced by Raymond Hood, who designed three of the most distinctive buildings in New York City: the Radio City Music Hall auditorium and foyer, the RCA building at Rockefeller Center, and the New York Daily News building.
Ancient Egyptian art told stories. Highly stylized icons had symbolic meanings. Notice the images embossed into this wall from the tomb of King Tutankhamen.
Art Deco architects often lavished their buildings with symbolic images. Perhaps the most famous example is New York’s Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen. Briefly the world’s tallest building, the skyscraper is adorned with eagle hood ornaments, hubcaps and abstract images of cars. Other Art Deco architects used stylized flowers, sunbursts, birds and machine gears.