Art Deco

Art Deco is a decorative style that is essentially an extension of the French Art Nouveau and English Aesthetic styles, but also includes elements of Arts and Crafts form. Some historians claim that because of its eclectic borrowing from so many sources, it should not be identified as a distinct style. Yet it has enjoyed recurrent popularity, and has contributed to later stylistic developments. The term Art Deco is used to describe a design style that originates around World War I, and runs through to World War II (c. 1915-1945).

The style emphasizes surface embellishment, drawing heavily on the colors and styles of some of the early modern art movements, from Impressionism through Cubism. Like many of the modern art styles, it was inspired by Chinese and Japanese art, both of which were popular during this period.

Art Deco furnishings frequently used marquetry, enamelling and other techniques to create surface interest. During the 1920's vivid color was often used. Both furniture and textiles tended to use decorative designs that exhibited a strong painterly quality reminiscent of Impressionist, and post-Impressionist, Fauve, and Cubist techniques. The forms of furniture and interiors combined sleek curves with angularity, the forms often quoting earlier decorative styles in a simplified form.

In the 1930's the color palette became more subdued with white, black, and metallic surfaces combined with softer hues. Decorative design in textiles continued to quote from modern art, with Cubism appearing as a more apparent influence, in addition to other styles. The characteristic forms, a combination of smooth curves and angles, continued to be the dominant feature of the style. The style came to be associated with a high technology, futurist view of American culture in an age when the romance of air travel was at its peak. The idea of streamlining based on aerodynamics became a feature of design used in everything from architecture to appliances. Classic examples of Art Deco architecture include the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center in New York City, and the Miami Beach waterfront. The graphic designer Erte created a characteristic Art Deco style in illustration and decoration.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Wright was a student of Louis Sullivan, the nineteenth century American architect credited with the invention of the skyscraper. Sullivan was the central figure in the American movement known as the Prairie School. He was also the person who formulated the credo of modern design: "form follows function." Although this phrase would mean different things to different people, in Sullivan's urban work it meant both a consideration of the crowded urban environment, and a use of new materials and techniques to accomplish his ideas-- use of structural steel which both permitted taller buildings, and more glass to allow light.

Sullivan's influence can be seen in Wright's concern with the relationship of a building to its environment:

"Any building, or group of buildings, should defer to the character and scale of the site or area where they are built. Whether a building is done on the outskirts of a city, far out in the hinterlands, or smack-dab in the middle of a town, this is a principle worth abiding by."

Wright's designs sought to demonstrate this unity of site and purpose. He spoke of the need to "develop an organic unity of planning, structure, materials, and site." His work was to influence the development of European modernism, though this occurred mainly through the publication of Wrights designs, and his many writings, since relatively few of his designs were actually built before the 1930's.

Wright was a contributor to the American Arts and Crafts style, although his designs were uniquely his own. His ideas were also in part shaped by his experiences in Japan, where he constructed the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1922. (The hotel was demolished in 1968, but a section of the facade and lobby was reconstructed in a Tokyo park). The Japanese aesthetic, which stressed the interrelationship of landscape and architecture, and the planning of landscape, was of great importance to Wright's work. Specific forms, such as the asymmetrical geometric forms of the simple Japanese domestic interior, and the deep overhanging eves of Japanese roofs, became characteristic features of Wright's designs.

Most of Wright's early designs were for private homes; the Robie house, built in 1909, is one example of his early style, which contained features such as dominant horizontal lines, deep eaves, asymmetrical forms, and the innovative use of the cantilever to support an overhanging roof. This link will take you to more pictures of the Robie House and other sites. These were all features characteristic of his work. Probably the best known of his private residence designs is Fallingwater at Bear Run, near Uniontown, PA. This house actually projects over a waterfall, supported by cantilevers, and is considered to be one of the finest examples of Wrights work. It is a brilliant example of incorporating a structure into its site. This link provides a video tour of the site.

One of his most important major public commissions was built in 1939 for the Johnson Wax Company in Racine, Wisconsin. This building incorporated many design features originally developed in his earlier work. The Guggenheim Museum, with its spiral shell-like form, was completed in 1957. It is the best known of his later works that explored the use of circular forms.

This link will take you to a very complete site on Wrights work.

This web site Copyright © 1995 by Charlotte Jirousek
Questions or comments? Let us know at