Art Deco in America
The impact of Art Deco in America was extensive and profound. Knowledge of the new style spread rapidly as Europeans emigrated to the US and American designers travelled to Europe.
European models of design were quickly superseded as designers strove to 'Americanize' the style, adapting it to cheaper materials, machine production and American social habits.
In their search for American imagery, artists and designers turned to the modern American city for evocative symbols of progress and modernity. Products of the 1920s building boom, the towering new skyscrapers of Manhattan, with their characteristic set-backs, became recurrent motifs in designs for textiles, tableware and furniture. They also appeared in photography, painting and the backdrops for Hollywood films.
For one leading émigré designer, the Austrian-born Paul Frankl, 'the skyscraper was a more vital contribution to the field of modern art than all the things done in Europe put together'.
Art Deco and Hollywood
Film, the most powerful medium of the modern age, established Art Deco as a global style. In Hollywood Art Deco reached its full potential for fantasy, glamour and mass popularity.
In films such as Our Dancing Daughters, Grand Hotel, 42nd Street and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Hollywood spun a magical web of luxury, youth, beauty, upward mobility, sexual liberation and rampant consumerism. Stars such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford played racy, modern heroines who embodied Art Deco chic.
Successive waves of European émigré designers, directors, writers, actors and producers brought the Art Deco aesthetic to Hollywood. However, the values and culture their films conveyed were thoroughly American. The Hollywood dream was played out against a backdrop of fantastic Art Deco hotels, night-clubs, ocean liners and skyscrapers. Offering a heady cocktail of modern themes and high style, the films proved irresistible to millions worldwide.
The 1930s witnessed the emergence of streamlining.
Rapidly identified as an American phenomenon, it transformed the look of everything, from factories and cinemas to transport, film, fashion and product design. Manufacturers, hit hard by the Depression, sought new ways of producing cheap products. Responding to their demands, a group of American designers developed an innovative approach known as 'styling'.
They encased products with contoured shells, notionally based on the principle of 'minimum drag'. These forms lent themselves to mechanized mass-production processes and new materials such as plastics.
Derived from machines that most powerfully symbolized the modern world - trains, automobiles and ocean liners - streamlining lent style and glamour to the most mundane of domestic products.
Streamlining was applied for symbolic and decorative purposes, to stimulate consumption rather than facilitate function. As such, it can be seen as yet another strategy to renew decoration. It marks the last phase of Art Deco's rich story.
New York Worlds Fair 1939
The unfettered consumerism and individualism of the New York World Fair of 1939 marked the culmination of Art Deco. The Fair's streamlined and geometric buildings celebrated the American dream in the face of totalitarianism and war in Europe. Giant American corporations, such as General Motors and Ford, built many of the most striking pavilions.
Six years later, when the Second World War finally ended, the world was very different. It was a world of austerity, rationalism and functionalist dogma. Ornament was seen as unnecessary or 'treated as suspect' by many Modernist critics. The splendour and flamboyance of Art Deco fell out of favour.
This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'Art Deco: 1910-1939', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 27 March - 20 July 2003.