Art Deco--Between the Wars


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Art and design were so closely inter-twined in the Art Deco years that it is difficult to separate them. One artist in particular seems to represent the spirit of the age in both her life and her art. Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980) made a name for herself in the 1920s as the portraitist of the rich and famous. With an extravagant, flamboyant personal history, which she embroidered to suit her own purposes, she was born in Warsaw, attended boarding schools in Switzerland but grew up in pre-Revolutionary Moscow, where she "cut a fascinating figure." (Amirrezvani 3C) Married at sixteen, she and her husband fled Russia one step ahead of the Bolsheviks for Paris in 1918. There she reinvented herself as a "...racy new woman of the era, staying out late, partying, using drugs, reportedly having affairs with men and women and setting out to conquer society." (Amirrezvani 3C) But she studied art seriously. Gallery owner and art critic Roland Weinstein of San Francisco said of her work, "Her art has a lot to do with fashion design and materialism...." as did so much of Art Deco. Art curator and critic Lynn Federele commented, She wasn't as innovative as the cubists...but she certainly had a unique, idiosyncratic and personal style. She was a wonderful technician, and...her paintings are quite beautifully composed." Lempicka's granddaughter remembers her as ..."authentically glamorous...." (Amirrezvani 3C) In 1934, Lempicka and her Hungarian second husband moved to the United States, living in Beverly Hills and New York.

Lempicka produced prolifically during her years in Paris at the height of Art Deco, in which she participated enthusiastically. Several of her signature pieces came from this period. Self-Portrait in the Green Bugatti also known as Autoportrait (left,) painted in 1925, typifies both her Art Deco style and a modified Cubist influence. The painting "...became an icon of the era.... one of [her] most recognized works through its reproduction in numerous magazines and books over the decades. The...version of the liberated woman in her brightly colored car has come to represent the newly discovered freedom of women of the day." (Paloma Gallery)


In 1927, she painted a portrait of her only child, Kizette, then eleven years old. The painting (right) entitled Girl on a Balcony, earned for Lempicka her first major award, First Prize at the Exposition Internationale. (Paloma Gallery)


In 1927 and 1928, Lempicka painted two very different pictures. On the left, La Bella Rafaela, a monumental nude, was as shocking in its day as Manet's Olympia had been in his. On the right, her High Summer. (Both images from Paloma Gallery)


Portrait of a Young Girl in a Green Dress, painted in 1929, was chosen by the Palace of the Legion of Honor as the main publicity image for its 2004 Art Deco exhibit. Art critics say that it illustrates why Lempicka was "the quintessential Art Deco portraitist...." (Paloma Gallery)



Art Deco architecture fused the "form follows function" of the modernists and the fantastic decoration that so defines the public and private buildings of the inter-war years. The influence of streamlining was evident in Art Deco architectural design and decorative motifs. The use of new materials, especially metal alloys, allowed architects to experiment in structure and decoration. Tim Benton explained, "The forms...derived from a wide range of sources, including French Art Deco motifs, Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens in Chicago, Moorish patterns, pre-Columbian art, German Expressionism..." not to mention frissons of classical, Egyptian, Chinese, and Gothic details." (Benton, et al. 246) Art Deco constructions included private homes, apartment buildings, skyscrapers, hotels, commercial enterprises, movie theaters, and crossed architectural and cultural dividing lines. Patricia Bayer wrote, "...Art Deco includes a myriad of...buildings, both vertical and horizontal, public and private, monumental and vernacular." (7)



Architects, like all the designers of the period, created "eclectic hybrids" reflecting " disparate as tribal African sculpture, the Ballets Russes, Japanese lacquerwork and Mayan temples..." to name just a few. (Bayer 15) Highly stylized, fantastic variations on exotic themes found their way into buildings such as the Ideal House or National Radiator Building in London. Designed by Raymond Hood and Gordon Jeeves in 1928, it was "one of London's jazziest Moderne buildings.... [T]his confection was clad in black granite and highlighted with Moorish and Persian-inspired enamel on bronze decoration. (Images from Bayer 14, 15)


Decorative details, as the quasi-Moorish, quasi-Persian freize above characterized many Art Deco buildings. In the United States, which literally invented the skyscraper, these kinds of motifs were on the insides and outsides of buildings. The Empire State Building lobby, constructed in the early 1930s incorporated brass "roundels" depicting "the energy sources...on which skyscraper design depended: concrete, steel, decoration, machinery, elevators...." (Benton, et al. 251) Shown here are "elevators" and "decorations." (Benton, et al. 252 plate 22.9)


Although skyscrapers dominate the skyline in all 21st century urban centers, they originated in America. After the Great Fire that destroyed much of Chicago in the 1870s, architects and engineers had a unique opportunity to recast the image of the city and to take advantage of the latest inventions and developments. Among these were advances in steel, reinforced concrete, air conditioning, artificial illumination, and the high speed elevator. (Benton, et al. 248) What began in Chicago spread to New York, other American cities, and all over the world. In 1924, Raymond Hood designed the twenty-one storey American Radiator Building in New York, "...relying on the black granite surfaces and gold trim to make a spectacular impact from a distance, especially when illuminated at night." (Benton, et al. 249) (Image, Benton, et al. 249 plate 22.7) Raymond Hood went on to lead the "Associated Architects consortium responsible for Rockefeller Center...." (Bayer 88)


The "sparkling spire" of the Chrysler Building with its "59th-floor chromium nickel-steel eagle gargoyles" is for many people the "quintessential Art Deco building. (Bayer 87) William van Alen completed the design for the Chrysler Corporation in 1930, and for some time the Chrysler Building was the tallest in the world; its tower soared 319 meters into the air. "The spire...was unlike anything else in architecture, a series of sunbursts in stainless steel leading to a slender spike. Bright stainless steel gargoyles and a...freize representing wheel hubcap motifs..." marked the base of the tower. (Benton, et al. 251) For the Beaux-Arts ball of January, 1931, guests were encouraged to come in costumes that "...capture[d] the...rhythm and pulsation...[of]...our work and play, our shop windows and our advertisements, and all the effervescence of modern life." (Benton, et al. 254) William van Alen came attired as the Chrysler Building with "a towering lantern on his head, robes made of shimmering foil and exotic woods, epaulettes representing the gargoyle eagles, and waistcoat and boots based on the interior decoration." (Benton, et al. 254) (Image from Bayer 86)


Not to spend too much time in America, a microcosm of Art Deco architecture has been preserved in Miami Beach, Florida. Patricia Bayer described them as "pastel confections" and the "finest group of Moderne residences in the United States." (70) In fact, Miami has named the area the Miami Beach Art Deco District. Miami Beach hotels of this era demonstrate the themes of the 1920s and 1930s with their "candy-colored tones, racing stripes,stepped parapets, floral panels and port hole windows." (Bayer 78) The firm McKay and Gibbs designed the Hotel del Caribe in the Art Deco Style.



The Marlin Hotel, (left, Bayer 70) built in the 1930s, was recently restored (retrovated?) to its former glory. The private residence (right, Bayer 70) shows the "extended eyebrows" of a restored and somewhat jazzier Art Deco style.


Private homes reflected Art Deco influences. They abounded in the 1920s and 1930s, even a few examples can be found in Palo Alto. In 1933, Prince Asaka of Japan commissioned the imperial architects to design a villa for himself and his family left (Bayer 62) reflecting clear Art Deco influences.


Well, there's considerably more to say about all aspects of Art Deco design, fashion, art, architecture, etc. These pages have given you a small taste.



Amirrezvani, Anita. "the people's choice." The San José Mercury News. July 5, 2005.

Art Deco 1910-1939. Edited by Charlotte Benton, et al. London: V&A Publications, 2003.

Bayer, Patricia. Art Deco Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Divine Industries. "Tamara de Lempicka." Paloma Gallery. Online Available.
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Gerten-Jackson, Carol. "Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980.)" CGFA. Online Available.
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Tricky Mickey. "Tamara de Lempicka." Tricky Mickey's Art Page. Online Available.


McKee, Peggy. "Art/Architecture." Art Deco--Between the Wars. May 7, 2013 . Online Available.
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(McKee. "Art/Architecture")