Styles of Art Deco by Jack Woolverton

Art Deco takes its name from the world’s fair held in Paris in 1925, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, or International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. At the fair, France and twenty-two other nations exhibited decorative arts in temporary buildings they designed just for the exposition. The fair’s organizers explicitly required that the wares shown be “modern”—that is, that they depart from tradition stylistically. Although the decorative arts and the pavilions in which they were exhibited varied greatly in this respect, the legacy of the fair was the new Art Deco style.    (1)

However, the actual term Art Deco only gained currency as a broadly applied stylistic label in 1968 when historian Bevis Hillier published the first book on the subject: Art Deco of the 20s and 30s.     (2)

Now often referred to as simply Art Deco, this style included three different movements:  
Zigzag Moderne
Streamline (Art) Moderne
PWA/WPA Moderne

Each of these movements has its own unique characteristics.

Zigzag Moderne

In the aftermath of World War I, with the machine age firing imaginations in America and abroad, an entirely new architectural style emerged.  It celebrated a modern approach to traditional forms and embraced the energy and optimism of the flapper era.    (3)

An extremely eclectic design trend, Art Deco drew on a wide variety of historical and avant-garde styles, from ancient Egyptian and Mayan architecture and decoration to Cubism, an early twentieth-century movement in the fine arts. Designers chose in a seemingly random manner from this smorgasbord of decorative motifs, simplified or stylized them, and combined them in unusual and sometimes surprising ways. Among the favorite elements of the new decorative vocabulary were sunbursts, gazelles, abstracted vegetal forms, fountains, geometric motifs, and the chevrons that gave early Art Deco its alternate name, “Zigzag Moderne.” The decoration was typically executed in a splendid assortment of materials, including exotic wood veneers, marble, painted terracotta, and metals.   (1)

Zigzag Moderne was a distinctly urban style that flourished in large cities - New York, Los Angeles, Miami - where residents embraced forward-thinking modernism and the machine age. While a few dwellings were designed in the Zigzag Moderne style, it was primarily used for large public and commercial buildings, especially hotels, movie theaters, restaurants, skyscrapers, and department stores. The style required expensive and exotic materials that were artistically designed and skillfully applied by artisans. The style was largely a system of ornamentation applied to smooth building surfaces.    (4)

Characteristics of Zigzag Moderne include:

  • Angular geometric decorative patterns
  • Vertical molded ornamentation
  • Tower suggestive of high-rise buildings
  • Central tower with stepped wings
  • Decorative parapet
  • Decorative cornice
  • Ornamental door and window surrounds
  • Metal sash windows
  • Polychromatic decorative glass or glazed brick    (5)


Streamline (Art) Moderne

After the onset of the depression, Zigzag Moderne’s extravagance became unaffordable. Designers responded to economic constraints by purging objects and buildings of abundant applied ornament in favor of a more austere variant of Art Deco known as “Streamline Moderne.” Inspired in part by great transatlantic ocean liners like the Normandie, the new style featured aerodynamic curves, smooth wall surfaces, and steel railing and was often marked by the signature trio of horizontal speed stripes that were meant to suggest motion. (1)

Like its Zigzag predecessor, Streamlined Moderne was a total style that was applied to all manner of objects and structures. Typically, however, the building types in which it was used were of smaller scale than was true in the earlier period: gas stations, diners, bus terminals, and stores were the favorite objects of streamlining in architecture. Fittingly, materials used were also more humble. Facades were now clad in vitrolite (baked enamel panels), black glass, aluminum, and plastic, and interiors were far less sumptuous. The use of these machine-age materials reflected the fact that, while the diminished circumstances of the depression forced a scaling-back of the original Art Deco style (Zigzag Moderne), that style continued to be an expression of the essential modernity of the age.    (1)

Characteristics of Streamline Moderne include:

  • Aerodynamic curves and flowing forms
  • Emphasis on simple lines and a very clean look
  • Long horizontal lines
  • Smooth and curved wall surfaces
  • Nautical elements, such as portholes and steel railing, often marked by a signature trio of horizontal speed stripes suggesting motion
  • Use of new materials such as glass block, chrome, vitrolite, stainless steel and neon signage
  • Flat roofs with ledge coping
  • Horizontal bands of windows, often steel casement, set flush with wall surfaces
  • Elements in groups of three     (4) 


PWA/WPA Moderne  

The geometrically ornamented structures of the 1920s gave way to the simpler and more heroic public architecture of the Great Depression.    (3)

As the depression gripped the country, a variety of public works agencies were set up to employ the jobless, stimulate the economy and build facilities that communities needed.  Two of these agencies were the PWA (Public Works Administration) & WPA (Works Progress Administration).

Established in June 1933, the PWA’s mission was to build large scale projects like dams, bridges, courthouses, hospitals, university buildings, and schools.  Because the architectural style of the projects was determined by local taste, there is no standard way to recognize a PWA project.   (6)  However, buildings in this style are characterized mainly by their public use and massive or monumental scale.

Also called Depression or Classical Moderne, PWA/WPA Moderne is a stripped down version of Steamline Moderne with a little Zigzag ornament added. PWA/WPA Moderne structures reflect a greater use of conservative and classical elements and have a distinct monumental feel to them.   (7)

Characteristics of PWA Moderne include:

  • Symmetrical façade
  • Smooth wall surfaces, flat roof, and plain, narrow cornices
  • Projecting pavilions
  • Vertical molded ornamentation
  • Art Deco decorative motifs
  • Framed entrances
  • Piers, usually without capitals
  • Metal sash   (5)

As the new Modernism took hold after World War II, Art Deco fell from favor. Not until the 1970s did popular opinion swing back toward the hotels, skyscrapers, and movie palaces of the 1920s, leading to the preservation of some of our most exuberant landmarks.  (3)

Carnegie Magazine Online
Zigzags and Speed Stripes. by Tracy Myers  (assistant curator of The Heinz Architectural Center) 
2   Hillier, Bevis (1968). Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. Studio Vista. ISBN 978-0-289-27788-1.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation; By Magazine staff | Online Only | July/August 2008