What is Art Deco?


Chrysler Building, NYC

Art Deco is a style of architecture and design that began in France after the First World War and flourished around the world into the 1950’s. It’s the style of flappers and the hallmark of 1920’s decadence. But why is Art Deco so special? In short, because of its unique history, global reach and international appeal – this style can be seen all over the world, from New York and London to Shanghai, Havana, and Casablanca.

The term “Art Deco”, although not used until the 1960s, was taken from the title of the 1925 International Exposition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Arts – L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et industriels modernes – in Paris. The style emerged during a time when industrialization was transforming architecture – its embrace of new technologies is what distinguishes Art Deco from the organic motifs of its predecessor, Art Nouveau.

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#PortholeMonday, Shanghai

Art Deco is a quintessentially modern style, consisting of smooth lines, sharp angles, clean curves, and strong colors. The style emphasizes geometric forms and symmetrical patterns – round porthole windows, Aztec-inspired ziggurats, and sunburst motifs are examples of Art Deco elements. It ranges from minimalist to extravagant – compare the intricate interior of Detroit’s Guardian Building to the simple lines of the Empire State Building in New York. It isn’t the easiest style to describe – but you know it when you see it.

Art Deco isn’t just a style of architecture, it’s a style of design as well – it exists in art, fashion, furniture, household objects, and even cars and trains – Art Deco was a way of life. Flappers of the 1920’s were the height of Art Deco fashion – you may also recognize it as the decadent style of The Great Gatsby.


Guardian Building, Detroit (source)

Part of the reason that Art Deco exists all over the world is because of traveling architects. In the modern, globalizing world of the 20th century, architects were able to travel across the world to study at renowned institutions such as L’Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts in Paris and to design buildings in emerging international metropolises. For example, Hungarian architect László Hudec did most of his work in Shanghai, and Chinese architect Liu Jipiao was trained in Paris.


Art Deco in Havana, Cuba (source)

Art Deco is also notable because of its dedicated following – it is possibly the only style of architecture to have a fan club. The World Congress on Art Deco meets every two years in a different Art Deco city somewhere in the world to look at buildings, talk about design, and party like it’s 1929. Past Congresses have taken place in locations such as Montréal, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Rio de Janeiro. This November, the World Congress meets for the first time in Asia in Shanghai, China.