A creative but short-lived movement, Art Deco not only influenced the architecture of most American cities but had an impact on fashion, art, and furniture, too. From 1925 to 1940, Americans embraced Art Deco as a refreshing change from the eclectic and revivalist sensibilities that preceded it. The style takes its name from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925 as a showcase for new inspiration. The style was essentially one of applied decoration. Buildings were richly embellished with hard-edged, low-relief designs: geometric shapes, including chevrons and ziggurats; and stylized floral and sunrise patterns. Shapes and decorations inspired by Native American artwork were among the archetypes of the Art Deco lexicon.
Although some buildings utilized expensive hand-crafted decoration, others made do with machine-made repetitive decorations. To keep costs down, ornamental treatment was often limited to the most visible parts of the building. Art Deco projects produced dynamic collaborations between architects, painters, sculptors, and designers—sometimes resulting in complete Art Deco environments like Old Miami Beach, Florida. In its day, some of what we now refer to as Art Deco wasoften called Moderne, or Art Moderne, a term used to describe the most advanced design ideas of the 1930s through to the end of World War II. Being close cousins, Art Deco and Art Moderne shared stripped-down forms. But Art Moderne had a horizontal rather than vertical emphasis, rounded rather than angular corners, and little surface ornamentation. Art Deco was first applied to public and commercial buildings in the 1920s. Although individual homes were rarely designed in the Art Deco style, architects and developers, especially in Greater Washington, DC, found that the style adapted quite well to apartment buildings. Most of these buildings are still in use, a testament to the city’s richly varied architectural history.
For all its panache, Art Deco was immensely practical in execution. For projects on a tight budget, the simple box could be decorated with motifs and embellished with appendages that made a conceptually rudimentary structure appear fashionable and up to date. Visual interest could be further enhanced by stretching linear forms horizontally and vertically throughout the building. This was frequently done with bands of brick, canopies, or copings. A 1984 book, Washington Deco by Hans Wirz and Richard Striner, catalogs over 400 Art Deco buildings in the Washington area. Two examples are on Capitol Hill: the former Kresge Store at 666 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., built in 1936 and recently expanded (the Art Deco-style frieze on the building’s facade was part of the 1980s renovation of the building; the pattern for the frieze was taken from a 1930s fabric); and the Penn Theater at 650 Pennsylvania Avenue S.E., built in 1935. Although the Penn Theater itself was demolished, the marquee and a portion of the faccade have been incorporated into the new building. Additional examples of Washington Art Deco are the Kennedy-Warren Apartments at 3133 Connecticut Avenue N.W., the Hecht Company warehouse on New York Avenue N.E., and the sign of the former Greyhound Bus Terminal on New York Avenue N.W.
In classic Art Deco, rectangular blocky forms were often arranged in geometric fashion, then broken up by curved ornamental elements. But always the aim was a monolithic appearance with applied decorative motifs.
Art Deco materials included stucco, concrete, smooth-faced stone, and Terracotta. Steel and aluminum were often used along with glass blocks and decorative opaque plate glass (vitrolite).
Art Deco designers adorned flat roofs with parapets, spires, or tower-like constructs to accentuate a corner or entrance. Decorative curiosities such as chimneys were added to further enhance the design.
Windows usually appear as punctured openings, either square or round. To maintain a streamlined appearance for the building, they were often arranged in continuous horizontal bands of glass. Wall openings are sometimes filled with decorative glass or with glass blocks, creating a contrast of solid and void forms while admitting daylight. Many large apartment buildings found aesthetic success with decorative embossed spandrel panels placed below windows. The Kennedy-Warren Apartments is an example.
Doorways are sometimes surrounded with elaborate pilasters and pediments, and door surrounds are often embellished with either reeding (a convex decoration) or fluting (a concave decoration). The quality and extent of the decorative motifs vary by project and designer.
Learn more architecture terminology in our architecture glossary of definitions and vocabulary.