Zigzags and Speed Stripes


On a miserably hot, humid Tuesday last July, I found myself inching along Allegheny County’s construction-clogged Route 51, the last car in a small convoy headed by photographer Ed Massery. We were on one of numerous road trips in search of buildings for him to photograph for the exhibition Zigzags and Speed Stripes: The Art Deco Style—altogether, a delightful experience, but at this particular moment I was not happy. It was one of those days when runners’ feet blister from pounding the steaming pavement and old cars’ radiators are tested to the bursting point. Urging on my own decrepit but trusty ‘mobile, I was grumpily surveying the uninspiring landscape of West Mifflin when suddenly, there was our destination: the Allegheny County Airport, a perfect little gem in the Art Deco style. With its crisply defined masses, colorful decoration, and stainless-steel–framed canopy, the airport epitomizes one strain of this very popular style of the 1920s and ‘30s. And in its function as a support for flight, the airport represents the kind of technological advances that were at the heart of the period’s burgeoning modernity, to which the Art Deco style of applied decoration was an exuberant response. Zigzags and Speed Stripes explores American Art Deco architecture as represented in architectural drawings, photographs, exposition souvenirs and books.

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.

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. Although practitioners of doctrinaire Modernism considered Art Deco reprehensibly luxurious and self-indulgent by comparison to their own severe, socially concerned design, Art Deco stylists believed their new aesthetic was perfectly appropriate to the age that spawned such innovations as air travel, radio, the telephone, talking pictures, and the skyscraper.

Art Deco was a “total style” that designers applied to everything from tea services to skyscrapers, furniture to bookbindings, fashion design to movie sets, draperies to lipstick tubes. It was also an international style: from France, it quickly spread throughout the West and as far afield as New Zealand, South Africa, and Japan. In the United States, Art Deco was most successfully used in architecture and architectural decoration. In terms of both scale and building type, the range of its uses here was vast: it embellished grand structures like skyscrapers and bridges, and more modest buildings, such as stores, post offices, schools, banks, and gas stations. Art Deco’s most opulent expression was often found in movie palaces, where the lavishly decorated interiors completed the experience of escape offered by talking pictures.

After the onset of the depression, zigzag moderne’s extravagance became both unaffordable and indefensible. 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 “streamlined moderne.” Inspired in part by great transatlantic oceanliners 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.
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 Art Deco style, that style continued to be an expression of the essential modernity of the age.

Tracy Myers is assistant curator of The Heinz Architectural Center.


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