An Introduction to Art Deco Architecture

The 1933 Art Deco Skyscraper by Raymond Hood at Rockefeller Center, NYC
The 1933 Art Deco Skyscraper by Raymond Hood at Rockefeller Center, NYC. Photo by Robert Alexander / Archive Photos / Getty Images

During the roaring twenties and the early thirties, jazzy Art Deco architecture became the rage. Designers and historians coined the term Art Deco to describe a modernist movement that grew out of the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Art in Paris.  But, like any style, Art Deco evolved from many sources.

The Art Deco inscription at the entrance to 30 Rock in New York City is from the Bible, the Book of Isaiah 33:6: "And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure." Architect Raymond Hood embraced traditional religious scripture with an electrifying, bearded figure. This mix of old and new characterizes Art Deco.

Art Deco combines the austere shapes of Bauhaus architecture and the streamlined styling of modern technology with patterns and icons from the Far East, ancient Greece and Rome, Africa, India, and Mayan and Aztec cultures. Most of all, Art Deco draws inspiration from the art and architecture of ancient Egypt.

During the 1920s, when the Art Deco style emerged, the world was abuzz with excitement over a stunning archaeological find in Luxor. Archaeologists opened the tomb of the ancient King Tut and discovered dazzling artifacts inside.

Echoes from the Tomb: Art Deco Architecture

Detail from engraving of gold covered chapel from Tomb of King Tutankhamun, Egypt
Detail from engraving of gold covered chapel from Tomb of King Tutankhamun, Egypt. Photo by De Agostini / S. Vannini/De Agostini Picture Library Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, thrilled the world with their discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Reporters and tourists thronged the site for a glimpse at treasures which had laid nearly undisturbed for over 3,000 years. Two years later, the archaeologists uncovered the stone sarcophagus containing the solid gold coffin and the mummy of "King Tut." Meanwhile in Europe and the United States, a fascination for Ancient Egypt found expression in clothing, jewelry, furniture, graphic design and, of course, architecture.

Ancient Egyptian art told stories. Highly stylized icons had symbolic meanings. Notice the linear, two-dimensional image in gold shown here from the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Art Deco artists in the 1930s would enhance this design into sleek, mechanical sculptures like the Contralto Sculpture in Fair Park near Dallas, Texas.

The term Art Deco was coined from the Exposition des Arts Decoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Robert Mallet-Stevens (1886-1945) helped promote Art Deco architecture in Europe. In the United States, Art Deco was embraced by Raymond Hood, who designed three of the most distinctive buildings in New York City—Radio City Music Hall auditorium and foyer, the RCA / GE Building at Rockefeller Center, and the New York Daily News building.

Art Deco Designs and Symbols

Inscription carved in stone on the art deco facade of THE NEWS Building, HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM
Inscription carved in stone on the art deco facade of THE NEWS Building, HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM. Photo by Dario Cantatore/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images (cropped)

Art Deco architects like Raymond Hood often lavished their buildings with symbolic images. The limestone entrance to The News Building on New York City's 42nd Street is no exception. A polished granite Egyptian-like sunken relief depicts a crowd of people under the banner "HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM," which is taken from Abraham Lincoln's quotation: "God must love the common man. He made so many of them."

Images of the common man etched into THE NEWS building facade create a strong symbol for an American newspaper. The 1930s, an era of great nationalism and the rise of the common man, also brought us the protection of the superhero. Superman, disguised as mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, mixed with common folk by working at The Daily Planet, which was modeled after Raymond Hood's Art Deco Daily News Building.

Perhaps the most famous example of Art Deco designs and symbols is New York's Chrysler Building, designed by William Van Alen. Briefly the world's tallest building, the skyscraper is adorned with eagle hood ornaments, hubcaps and abstract images of cars. Other Art Deco architects used stylized flowers, sunbursts, birds and machine gears.

Art Deco Patterns and Designs

The 1939 Marlin Hotel, Art Deco Historic District in Miami Beach, Florida
The 1939 Marlin Hotel, Art Deco Historic District in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo by Latitudestock/Gallo Images Collection/Getty Images

From skyscrapers and movie houses to gas stations and private homes, the idea of using icons in architecture became the height of fashion. Renown for its Moderne Deco architecture, the streets of of Miami, Florida are lined with buildings like the one shown here.

The Terra-cotta facing and the strong vertical bands are typical Art Deco features borrowed from antiquity. Other characteristics of the style include zigzag designs, echoing patterns and vivid colors that would delight the slumbering Egyptian king.

King Tut Goes Mod: Art Deco Skyscrapers

Close-up upper floors of the Art Deco Empire State Building in NYC
The Art Deco Empire State Building in New York City. Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images

When Howard Carter opened the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king, Tutankhamen, the world was dazzled by the brilliance of the treasure.

Vivid color, strong lines and undulating, repeating patterns are a trademark of Art Deco design, especially in the Moderne Deco buildings of the 1930s. Some buildings are embellished with flowing waterfall effects. Others present colors in bold, geometric blocks.

But, Art Deco design is about more than color and ornamental patterns. The very shape of these buildings expresses a fascination for orderly forms and primitive architecture. The early Art Deco skyscrapers suggest Egyptian or Assyrian pyramids with terraced steps rising to the top.

Built in 1931, the Empire State Building in New York City is an example of tiered, or stepped, design. The trendy Egyptian set-back was a perfect solution to new building codes that required sunlight to reach the ground, unobstructed by these new tall buildings that were scraping the skies.

Steps in Time: Art Deco Ziggurats

Art Deco ziggurats form the Louisiana State Capitol built in 1932, Baton Rouge, LA
Art Deco ziggurats form the Louisiana State Capitol built in 1932, Baton Rouge, LA. Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Skyscrapers built during the 1920s and early 1930s may not have the brilliant colors or zigzag designs we associate with the Art Deco style. However, these buildings often took on a distinctive Art Deco shape—the ziggurat.

A ziggurat is a terraced pyramid with each story smaller than the one below it. Art Deco skyscrapers may have complex groupings of rectangles or trapezoids. Sometimes two contrasting materials are used to create subtle bands of color, a strong sense of line, or the illusion of pillars. The logical progression of steps and the rhythmical repetition of shapes suggest ancient architecture, yet also celebrate a new, technological era.

It's easy to overlook the Egyptian elements in the design of a posh theater or a streamlined diner. But the tomblike shape of twentieth century "ziggurats" make it clear that the world was in a tizzy over finding King Tut.

Art Deco in Dallas

Tejas Warrior statue by Allie Victoria Tennant in 1936 stands in front of Hall of State
Tejas Warrior statue by Allie Victoria Tennant in 1936 stands in front of Hall of State. Photo © Don Klumpp, Getty Images

Art Deco designs were the buildings of the future: sleek, geometric, dramatic. With their cubic forms and zigzag designs, art deco buildings embraced the machine age. Yet many features of the style were drawn not from the Jetsons, but the Flintstones.

The architecture in Dallas, Texas is a history lesson in one city. Fair Park, site of the annual Texas State Fair, claims to have the largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the United States. The 1936 "Tejas Warrior" by Allie Victoria Tennant stands within the 76-foot tall Texas limestone columns at the Hall of State building. Statues such as this were common Art Deco features of the time, the most famous, perhaps, being Prometheus at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Note the strong cubical geometry of the columns, unlike more traditional column types and styles. Art Deco designs are architecture's equivalent to cubism in art history.

Art Deco in Miami

Colorful painted Art Deco houses in Miami, Florida
Colorful painted Art Deco houses in Miami, Florida. Photo by pidjoe/E+ Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Art Deco is an eclectic style—a conglomeration of influences from many cultures and historic periods. World architecture, including in the United States, was flourishing at the turn of the 20th century—finding Tut's ancient tomb inspired design.

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Craven, Jackie. "An Introduction to Art Deco Architecture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). An Introduction to Art Deco Architecture. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "An Introduction to Art Deco Architecture." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).