New York, Art Deco capital of the world

How the Big Apple's skyscraper race helped transform the city into a hub of modern architecture

Topics: Imprint, Design, New York City,

New York, Art Deco capital of the world The Chrysler gargoyle
This article originally appeared on Imprint.

City of Deco

ImprintThe Empire State Building did not start out as the jewel in New York’s Art Deco crown. Rather it was conceived so that financier Jacob Raskob could turn a real estate profit in an underutilized part of midtown Manhattan. What began on the drawing board as a stubby, 30-story office building soon grew exponentially larger because the feisty Raskob decided that profit wasn’t really as important as breaking all the existing skyscraper records. At one historic meeting the financier turned to architect William Lamb of Shreve Lamb and Harmon, pulled out a large pencil from his desk, held it up and asked, “Bill, how high can you make it so that it won’t fall down?” This was a battle cry in a competition with the Chrysler Building, whose height was increased each time Raskob announced additional floors. When Lamb reached 86 stories, only 4 feet higher than the Chrysler tower, Raskob wasn’t about to take any chances. He looked at the flat-topped scale model and said, “It needs a hat.” And with those words was erected the dirigible mooring mast, towering 200 feet above the 86th floor, giving the Empire State Building its distinctive Art Deco top.

With the Empire State as its centerpiece New York is indeed an Art Deco city, but Art Deco architecture is not exclusive to New York. Miami has its magnificent beachfront hotels, Hollywood its sumptuous movie palaces, and deco relics can be seen in Washington, Seattle and Chicago, and in most major industrial cities. A deco hybrid known as “Navajo style” is prevalent in cities throughout the Southwest. And in many small, formerly industrial towns in the United States deco detailing is visible on pre-World War II buildings. Yet since Paris is dubbed the capital of Art Nouveau (owing to the profound influence of architects and designers who practiced the curvilinear style), so New York City must be hailed as the Art Deco hub of the world for its many monumental buildings conforming to this between-the-wars decorative style.

The Chrysler gargoyle.

As host of the 1925 “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes,” Paris was the epicenter of “art moderne,” as art deco was then formally called. This exposition was a collection of lush pavilions that celebrated a new ornamentalism, presenting the world with examples of the choicest stylistic developments in furniture, textile, fashion, and graphic design. Despite this early French beachhead in what one critic called the “style wars,” New York City became the paradigm of two other stages of the moderne manifestation — the Skyscraper and Streamline phases. The former began in the early 1920s with a post-war building boom, while the latter emerged during the Depression, reaching its crescendo at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Despite the preference following World War II for architecture in the International Style, New York’s Art Deco legacy remains virtually intact. Although some icons have disappeared (such as Fifth Avenue’s gilded traffic lights topped by statuettes of Mercury removed during the late 1950s because of vandalism), New York’s undisputed landmarks, The Empire State, Chrysler, Radiator, Fuller, and Chanin Buildings, and Rockefeller Center continue to define the spectacular Deco cityscape.

Some historians say that Deco emerged as an international style of luxury and exclusivity immediately following World War I. In fact, Art Deco actually has a somewhat longer history. While Deco roots can be traced to the applied arts academies and workshops in fin de siecle Vienna, Glasgow, Berlin and Munich, its birthplace was Paris, and one of its fathers was Paul Poiret, who in 1911 founded the Martine School of Decorative Art. As Picasso and Braque were revolutionizing the visual language with their Cubist experiments, Poiret was creating emblematic period fashions influenced by the very Cubism that was being received with equal parts hostility and awe. Cubism marked a distinctive change in commercial design and applied art, from a visual lexicon based on historicism to that of unprecedented form. Poiret had professed revulsion for Cubist and abstract art but, nevertheless, appropriated many abstract designs for his own work, thus forging a curious union of decorative and Modern tendencies into the Moderne or Modernistic style. Though the Modern and Moderne shared virtually the same chronology the differences between them were profound.

Although Modernism was about the future, Art Moderne reaffirmed values of the past. While the Modern movements in Russia, Germany, Holland and Italy were anti-bourgeois, Moderne design was created especially for bourgeois tastes and trickled down to the masses through cheap knockoffs. Early Deco products were usually made from an array of opulent materials, but the latter phase was characterized by machine production and economical plastics and light metals. Deco’s archetypal motifs were inspired by Cubism, the Ballet Russes, Aztec and Mayan, as well as Native American cultures. With the discovery of Tutankahamen’s tomb near Luxor, Egypt, Deco ornament became a melange of Egyptian ziggurats, sunbursts and lightning bolts — representing the past, present and future. Deco forms were essentially rectilinear rather than curvolinear, symmetric rather than asymmetric, yet even with these shared features variety characterized this decorative art.

The watershed Paris exposition was planned in the teens but was postponed by global war. When it finally opened in 1925 it spanned two banks of the Seine and was sarcastically referred to by Le Corbusier as “an international performance of decoration.” Although the description was apt, it was also a celebration of a decade of invention by many of the world’s leading form-givers (Le Corbusier included). The United States, however, was one of the few industrial nations made conspicuous by its absence. Then Secretary of Commerce (later to become President) Herbert Hoover declined the invitation to participate because, he said, America had nothing of merit to exhibit. Thought Walter Lippman had dubbed this epoch “The American Century,” underscored by America’s leadership in industry and urban planning, when it came to applied and decorative art there was no honest American style but rather historical revivals and faux styles, including neo-colonial, neo-baroque, and neo-tudor.

Design by Joseph Binder

In her introduction to “At Home in Manhattan: Modern Decorative Arts, 1925 to the Depression” (Yale University Art Gallery, 1985), Karen Davies writes that the 1925 Paris “Exposition revealed the isolation of the United States from progressive European design.” But she continues, that people were motivated by curiosity “and [with] the desire to become conversant with modern decorative arts, thousands of Americans visited the exhibition.” In New York City, often referred to as “the nation’s style pulse,” interest in the new style was on the increase owing to various museum and gallery exhibitions, which influenced feature stories in popular magazines. “In the wake of the 1925 Paris Exposition,” writes Ms. Davies, “growing interest in modern decorative arts generated commissions for designers in New York City — from furniture to rugs to dishware — but circumstances prevented widespread adoption of the French mode.” The need to express French opulence or “recapture their renowned Eighteenth Century craft tradition” was of no consequence to American designers who mined the tombs of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Native American cultures for decorative motifs. Indeed so popular and pervasive did the American Moderne style become (before the Depression put the skids on production and World War II ushered in an austerity binge) that John Dos Passos referred to American Decomania as “the Fifth Avenue shop-window style.”

Industry and technology were the basis for the truly American 20th century design vernacular. Indeed technology became a kind of religion to be worshiped in the grand skyscraper cathedrals, those reliquaries for American know-how. In 1913 the world’s tallest office building was New York’s Woolworth Building designed by Cass Gilbert in a gothic-inspired “Eclectic” mode. It vividly symbolized America’s economic might, the same might that fostered multimillion-dollar investments in other architectural projects. The skyscraper was imbued with mythic power, giving new meaning to the word metropolis.

In his 1930 book “The New World Architecture,” Sheldon Cheney writes that skyscraper design in New York was decidedly influenced by Eliel Saarinen’s second-place entry to the benchmark Chicago Tribune Tower competition: “this was a logical, powerful, nakedly impressive structure,” exhibiting “that loftiness, that flowering of formal beauty out of function.” In rejecting historical precedents for a building of simple rectangular masses, Saarinen’s work became a model for many buildings that rightly fall under the Deco umbrella. The most vivid New York example being Raymond Hood’s spectacular American Radiator Company Building (1924). This building, writes Cheney, carried traces of “devotion to picturesque effects, but marked another step out of wasteful decorativeness.” It was noted for its formal beauty out of function; it did not disguise itself in an attempt to hide its function as an office building. Its exterior color scheme was also given the attention not previously seen in other contemporary structures. But compared to the austere International Style glass buildings built decades later, Hood’s structure stands as the epitome of decorativeness.

The Radiator Building also exemplifies the evolution of the cityscape in the 1920s owing to a zoning ordinance known as the “set-back” regulation. This and other restrictions were official safeguards against the inevitability of a dense forest of skyscrapers. Ms. Davies notes that “most critics say Manhattan’s rising skyline was an inspirational symbol of American achievement,” but certain prescient civic leaders and social commentators saw the inevitable congestion, pollution and loss of light as hazardous to the environment. In response to the demand for “set-backs” some unique solutions were devised by architects to maximize the limitations resulting in the many Mayan-inspired silhouettes that dot the city. The most unique were Ely Jacques Kahn’s office building at 2 Park Avenue (1927), Sloan and Robertson’s Chanin Building (1929), Voorhees, Gmelin and Walker’s Western Union Telegraph Building.

Against the skyscraper backdrop it is fitting that New York’s Art Deco was called, among other names, the Skyscraper Style. But had it not been for Jacob Raskob, New York’s most celebrated Deco monument might not have been as unique as it is — indeed it might have looked like all the others. Yet the Empire State Building was curiously restrained compared to other ornamented buildings. Its decorative touches were actually restricted by the financial constraints of the Depression. Only the grand entrances and aluminum spandrels connecting the windows are pure decoration in the Deco sense. Even the lighter-than-air mast, though a kind of folly, could theoretically pass as functional. At the time, the interior and exterior of the Chrysler Building was by far the most extravagant of New York’s Deco palaces and served as the model for other art and design media.

Coney Island's famous monument.

For artists touched by the Modern spirit Manhattan’s skyscrapers were inspiring. Painters, sculptors, and printmakers like Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Louis Lozowick, and Joseph Stella transformed the already symbolic skyline into personal and universal metaphors. The skyscape was also a powerful inspiration for Hugh Ferris, New York’s leading architectural “conceptualizer.” In addition to his commissions to render real and proposed buildings, bridges and World’s Fair pavilions, Ferris created numerous charcoal drawings (collected in his book “Metropolis of Tomorrow”) that predicted a city of the future. Other artists drew inspiration from the past to create sculptures and murals that decorated Deco interiors and exteriors. Paul Manship borrowed from mythology for Rockefeller Center’s gilded Prometheus, and Alfred Janniot made a monumental limestone figure of Marianne. Also in Rockefeller Center, Jose Maria Sert’s massive mural “Abolition of War and Slavery” and Dean Cornwell’s Eastern Airlines mural conformed to the heroicism of the Deco style.

New York was home to a new breed of applied artists known as industrial designers, many of whom had their offices in, and therefore drew nourishment from, Manhattan. They included Donald Desky, Raymond Lowey, Walter Darwin Teague, Gilbert Rhode and Egmond Arens. And among their collective contributions to the Decoscape were storefronts (e.g., Loewy’s aluminum front for Cushman’s Bakeries and Teague’s glass front for Kodak) as well as building and theater lobbies (e.g., Donald Deskey’s Radio Music Hall interiors). It was these mechanical age artists who, working to raise American industry out of its Depression-weary sink hole by promoting increased consumerism, developed the Streamline Style that was manifest in products and graphics most vividly displayed at the “World of Tomorrow,” the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

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