Art Deco and Streamline Moderne: Where Art Meets Industry

By Sasha Coles

In October 1957, Elvis Presley performed some of his biggest hits for a 9,000-person audience at the Pan Pacific Auditorium, a 100,000 square-foot venue built in Los Angeles, California in the 1930s. Over several decades, this space hosted many notable performances and celebrities, including the Ice Capades, the Harlem Globetrotters, and President Dwight Eisenhower. The Pan Pacific Auditorium closed, though, after the Los Angeles Convention Center opened in the 1970s. Bulldozers eventually got to it in 1992, but this iconic structure still lives on at the entrances to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure. The four teal towers and white flagpoles above the Disney turnstiles offer us a window into the rich history of a famous art movement with a worldwide impact.

The term “Art Deco” refers to a design aesthetic that emerged in the interwar period, or the years between World War I and World War II. The Art Deco movement influenced everything from gas stations and hotels to posters, furniture, films, toys, appliances, and fashion. It can be tricky to nail down exactly when one art period ends and another begins, but scholars generally agree that Art Deco emerged in 1925, when the French government hosted the Exposition des Artes Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. This event showcased the newest developments in art, architecture, and design. 15,000 exhibitors and 16 million visitors came from more than 20 countries to attend the exposition. Over the next two decades, advertisements, celebrities, films, art exhibits, and enthusiastic promoters helped to spread Art Deco all over the world. Initially, mostly rich people living in urban European centers embraced the aesthetic, but over time, Art Deco reached all types of communities and took on distinct local flavors.

Straight lines; it is angular, geometric and tends to follow cubic proportions…The lines are unvaryingly plain and severe, with touches of decoration in the way of color, wrought iron and glass work, for relief
— Observer of Art Deco, 1928

The phrase “Art Deco” wasn’t invented until the 1960s. People living in the 1920s and 30s used other labels, like “modernistic,” “jazz-modern,” “zig-zag,” or “Moderne,” to describe what they were seeing. This terminology speaks to the major economic, social, and cultural transformations that occurred between the two world wars and produced the Art Deco movement. Innovations in lighting and transmission made electricity much cheaper and more widely accessible. People could enjoy new leisure activities, like cinemas, and at-home conveniences, including vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Automobiles, steamships, the trans-Atlantic phone service, radio towers, and other inventions allowed people to quickly connect with one another, even when separated by long distances. Corporations produced less expensive goods at a faster rate for a mass market due to improvements in factory production. Businesses started to invest more money into advertising, so as to better compete with one another and build brand loyalty. Mass migrations from rural to urban areas accompanied these technological advancements. Many people living in the 1920s and 30s felt like they had entered a truly modern, industrial age where life moved at a faster pace than it did before.

The Art Deco movement reflected these changes. The most common Art Deco colors included warm tans and shades of green and blue with brilliant touches of red, cobalt blue, and golden yellow. Designs incorporated shiny metal accents of steel, bronze, nickel, silver, platinum, lead, and zinc. Buildings from this period installed lighting in strategic places to create dramatic shadows, primarily on the exterior. Lightweight fabrics, cropped hair, metallic threads, heavy makeup, bold costume jewelry, geometric patterns, and a more boyish shape became popular for women. The Art Deco aesthetic became associated with a new personality and lifestyle characterized by youthful energy, glamour, power, prestige, and confidence (with just a hint of danger).

Harry Burton,  Tutankhamun tomb photographs  (1922), vol. 2. For more images of King Tut's tomb, click  here .

Harry Burton, Tutankhamun tomb photographs (1922), vol. 2. For more images of King Tut's tomb, click here.

International, historical influences were an important component of Art Deco. European powers had colonies all over the world in the 1920s and 30s. Colonial exploration and tourism impacted designers and artists, who drew on styles from Asia, Greece and Rome, Aztec and Mayan civilizations, and, most famously, ancient Egypt. In 1922, an archaeologist named Howard Carter unearthed the tomb of King Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh who died in 1323 BC. This stunning archaeological discovery in the Valley of the Kings catalyzed a worldwide obsession with ancient Egypt. Everything from department store windows to perfume bottles, ash trays, and bridal gowns started including scarab beetles, obelisks, nude goddesses, and other symbols associated with ancient Egypt. People wore “pharaoh sandals” and named their dogs “Tut”!

Main Entrance of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, 1600 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.

Main Entrance of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, 1600 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California.

So how did we get the turnstile designs mentioned earlier? Well, the worldwide economic depression that hit in the late 1920s led to a serious reexamination of art and design. The elaborate ornamentation of Art Deco did not make sense during this period of economic uncertainty. In the United States, Streamline Moderne became more prevalent. Art Deco and Streamline Moderne shared a lot of characteristics, but Streamline Moderne took a simpler approach and utilized inexpensive, easily replaceable materials like white cement, stucco, glass brick, and linoleum floors. The 1930s was also the heyday of transatlantic ocean liners, so many of the motels, bus terminals, gas stations, drive-in restaurants, movie theaters, supermarkets and event venues, including the Pan Pacific Auditorium, were built with ship details like small round windows, metal railings, and portholes.

Art Deco remained popular throughout the 1930s, though, thanks to the federal government’s attempt to bring the United States out of the Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program hired architects, sculptors, and painters to build and create art for town halls, zoos, high schools, prisons, post offices, airport terminals, and courthouses all over the country. Many sculptures and murals depicted transportation and communication technologies and industrial work. It is also worth mentioning black and women artists received an unprecedented number of commissions due to the New Deal’s art and construction initiatives.

Here's an example of an Art Deco mural commissioned as part of a New Deal program. Detail from "Mail Transportation," San Pedro Post Office, San Pedro, California, 1935.

Here's an example of an Art Deco mural commissioned as part of a New Deal program. Detail from "Mail Transportation," San Pedro Post Office, San Pedro, California, 1935.

The next time you walk through the Disney California Adventure turnstiles, check into the Hollywood Tower Hotel, or mosey down Hollywood Boulevard at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, take a look around. You might notice new details, like symmetrical zig-zags, bright colors, vertical geometric shapes, and metallic accents. Since Art Deco’s arrival in the 1920s, people called these designs “frivolous,” “cheap,” and “vulgar,” but those criticisms clearly did not end the presence or influence of this movement.

Want to know more about fashion during the Art Deco period? Click here for Episode 15 of the Main Street Style podcast. Maggie, Paola, Cailey, and I chat about Disney, Old Hollywood, and the flapper movement!

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David Gebhard, The National Trust Guide to Art Deco in America (1996)

Bevis Hillier and Stephen Escritt, Art Deco Style (2003)

Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, and Ghislaine Wood, editors, Art Deco 1910-1939 (2003)

Arnold Schwartzman, Deco Landmarks: Art Deco Gems of Los Angeles (2005)