By David Kittredge
I love everything Art Deco, whether it be in architecture, furniture, advertising posters or car design. Art Deco, or just Deco, uses vertical linear form, from elongated female sculptured images to angular geometric shapes reminiscent of oriental handheld fans which can draw the viewer’s eye upward or triangular pyramidal forms which might draw the eye back downward. Often a black-and-white checkerboard pattern on floors or walls can grace Deco architecture with its stark repetition of the angular geometric.
For the past few months I have been enjoying the old Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot series on YouTube about her Belgian-, French speaking sleuth. One reason that I am drawn to the detective series is the Art Deco backgrounds surrounding the characters. The Poirot character happens to live in an Art Deco apartment building in London, it still exists, known as Florin Court. By the way, one of the units is for sale, and if you want to live swaddled in Art Deco opulence all you need to do is cough up a mere $1 million and voila the place is yours!
As I bask, virtually, in the Deco surroundings while watching the series, a thought occurred to me, spurred by my study of airplane aerodynamics with my new hobby of airplane modeling. Did the study of aerodynamics spark the genre of Art Deco design? I thought that I had a novel idea formulating in the little gray cells, but no! As usual, I was a day late and $20 short, the extra nineteen is thrown in for inflation. It is well documented that the Art Deco period started in the early nineteen hundreds about the same time as motorized aviation. But as the science of aerodynamics progressed through the early part of the twentieth century, with the rounding off of the edges of the airplane fuselage, bullet shaped nose cones or the covering of the wheels of the landing gear with teardrop shaped pants, to make these parts slipperier, aerodynamics, the science of speed and motion infiltrated the Art Deco movement. The inclusion of aerodynamics in aviation helped to shift the Deco design element from a vertical form to the horizontal linear, inducing the viewer’s eye movement laterally, inducing a sense of speed, morphing it into an art form known as Streamline Moderne, otherwise known as Art Deco in motion.
Streamline Moderne design utilized chrome plated vertical strips of steel, rounded the noses of railroad engines, incorporated its iconic teardrop shape in cars as in the case of the boat tail Auburn and rounded the corners of everyday appliances, such as toasters and radios.
Sculptured Lalique glass hood ornaments graced the luxury automobiles of the 1930s with the sleek flowing horizontal images, often stylized female nudes. These fragile ornaments which cost about $50 each 85 years ago, are worth hundreds of dollars these days if you can find one intact. I remember seeing one about 20 years ago, but it was broken, which is usually the case.
So as Lindborg flew the right way in 1927 and Corrigan flew the wrong way 11 years later, the general public’s interest in aviation and its design elements became widespread and thus fashionable. Advertising posters for products or for travel in the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne style were displayed on city streets or in magazines, catching the consumer’s eye with the broad swatches of flat color with motion inducing characters or machines in a semi-abstract, two dimensional style. These illustrations which are considered to be an art form now, are readily sought after by enthusiasts and collectors, as you may have seen on the Antiques Roadshow television series.
As often happens with most cases involving human endeavors, things can be taken too far and in the case of Art Deco this happened in the 1950s, America. A new form of Deco was introduced to the unsuspecting public known as Raygun Gothic. This genre of architectural design has been described as retrofuturistic science fiction or as a “tomorrow that never was” a phrase coined by academic Lance Olsen. The radical and simplistic form referred to as Raygun Gothic was induced by the early misconceptions of the budding Space Age by the influence of mid-1930s Flash Gordon movies and space travel themed comic books. The Raygun Gothic images were often overly simplistic reminding me of the “spaceship” utilized in the old Flash Gordon movies which seemed merely to be a silver painted football suspended with strings. The strings are readily noticeable, while the puppet ship is jounced haphazardly in front of the camera. To distinguish the rocket ship from a football, fins and hot rod car exhaust headers and pipes were added. Apparently, Flash’s rocket ship was powered by a petroleum based fuel, as evidenced by the exhaust headers, causing me to wonder how many lightyears per gallon he managed.
Getting back to the Hercule Poirot television series, the graphics in the opening of each episode are wonderful examples of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, starting with an image consisting of a bold vertical line intersecting the a waxed mustache, to a stylized streamline locomotive in another frame, while the end of the graphic introduction has the detective standing under three overhead lamps, their light beaming down on him in a pyramidal form, as he turns and tips his hat to the viewing audience.
I now tip my hat to you, as I say, “au revoir,” until next time.