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Modern & Futuristic Elegance of Art Deco in New York

March 19, 2012

History of Art Deco

If you ask someone walking down Broadway if they've ever head of Art Deco, they will probably tell you, 'Sorry, I don’t know him'. However, most of us highly artistic folks – *wink* - know exactly what Art Deco is when we see it, however, describing it can sometimes be a challenge.

A design style that began during the 1920’s in France (Paris to be exact), Art Deco flourished internationally throughout the 1930s and influenced designs in architecture, interior design, fashion and even the visual arts. The term ‘art deco’ was coined after the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was held in 1935 (Paris again), probably because saying International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts was such a pain in the you-know-what.

Art Deco was influenced by a variety of sources as divergent as the Mayans of Central America to ancient Egyptian primitive art. During the early part of the 20th century in the United States it was also influenced by emerging new technologies like electricity and aviation, producing fractionated, crystalline, faceted forms likened to Cubism. These were bold, futuristic designs that were meant to celebrate the new age of man and modernism.

Most often characterized by the use of stainless steel, glass, aluminum, inlaid wood and even sharkskin, the designs are usually quite bold and even daring, incorporating sweeping curves, sunburst motifs, and stepped forms among others. In New York there are many buildings that were influenced by the Art Deco style, including the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler Building, Irving Trust building and hundreds of others that are eponymously known by their street address.

Art Deco in New York City

Located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and West 34th Street the Empire State Building is a fine example of Art Deco design. Its shape of the building is typical of the style as it is tiered, or stepped, like an ancient Egyptian or Aztec pyramid.  The influence can not only be seen in the exterior structural features, but throughout the interior design as well. Geometric forms like circles, triangles, and squares merge with cubes, cones and spheres to give the building a sense of modern sophistication and unparalleled elegance.

The Barclay-Vesey Building designed by prominent New York architect Ralph Walker is considered to be the first Art Deco skyscraper.  The building was awarded the Architectural League of New York's Gold Medal of Honor in 1927 for its fine expression of the new industrial age. The entrances are decorated with bronze bas-reliefs with a main theme of bells, the symbol of the building’s tenant - the Bell Telephone Company.

Arguably one of the most famous and abundant examples of Art Deco architecture is Rockefeller Center, which is absolutely loaded with the stuff.  Murals, sculptures and many architectural flourishes  from some of the best artists of the day were incorporated into virtually all aspects of the building, the most famous being  the statue of Prometheus delivering fire to the mortals of the earth amidst the waters of the central Plaza. From the bas-relief stone carvings on the façade to the murals, statues, and even specially designed patterns for the carpets, Rockefeller center is a must-see for any fan of the Art Deco style.

The design of the Irving Trust Building, another Art Deco masterpiece, has an insistent verticality which emphasizes its tall form and pointed windows that echo the Gothic details of the Trinity Church across the street. Many consider its Art Deco interior with its 11 meter high banking hall called the Red Room to be one of the finest in all of New York City. The breathtaking red and gold mosaics created by artist Hildreth Meiere are some of the largest in modern times. The lobby mural created by Kimon Nicolaides reads, “The Only Reason for Wealth is the Attainment of Beauty.”Romanesque vaulted arcade with ceiling murals runs the entire length of the Vesey Street side of the building. Critics have described it as “a building clean limbed and sure footed, rising with sheer, cliff-like wall”, as well as “a rugged beauty to hold one breathless with its force.”