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Arts & Culture, Historic Preservation

Moderne Art Deco Modern Atomic

Moderne vs. Modern. Art Deco? Atomic? Modern Atomic? What do all these words mean? We know, it can certainly be a bit confusing or overwhelming. Fortunately, we have resident historic-ophile Robert on hand to explain it.

June 12, 2014

Modern Art Deco Modern Atomic... What the heck does that mean? Well, obviously it's a jumble of words. They're all potential anachronisms when used excitedly (and inappropriately) for various design aesthetics, styles, and periods of time in their relation to art, architecture, and history.

Ever heard any of them? Of course, you have. If you've read my introductory blog post, you should already remember "Moderne". I start with it because it's one of the most confusing terms. Is it a fancy way of saying "modern"? Is it just like that show Mad Men? Does it mean Vintage (as in "old")? Is it a foreign word adopted by Americans? The orange Orange? (That's a word that the English language adopted from the French, because they didn't know what to do with it. Example: does anything rhyme with orange? No.)

"Moderne" is simply a synonym for "Art Deco", a more expansive and encompassing era of "design in the 1920s and 1930s, characterized especially by bold outlines, geometric and zigzag forms, and the use of new materials." That's Merriam-Webster talking, not me. The word "Moderne" is actually a word from Old French, and thence from the Latin modo as in "just now". Obviously, it can't mean "just now" because "now" is currently 2014, so "Art Deco" is more categorical. Moderne = Art Deco.

Notice how even the mailbox has its own flair? And what about those lights! Ooo-la-la.
Electric Deco

Notice how even the mailbox has its own flair? And what about those lights! Ooo-la-la.

I'll be happy to delve into more linguistics and etymologies in future posts, but assuming I haven't lost anyone already, I'd like to provide some visual examples of Art Deco as it relates to architecture (and art) on my recent trip to our eastern coastal city: New York. Two of my absolute favorite buildings are the Empire State and the Chrysler. Both epitomize the Art Deco style; in massing, detailing, and metalwork. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of industry, when science began to dictate the use of nature, or rather, the control of nature. Suddenly we had the assembly line for mass-produced items, sleek new streamliner (c. 1934) trains for travel, Tesla's pioneering of AC voltage and Edison's subsequent usurping of it...

Every entrance is important, every facade detailed.
Portal Deco

Every entrance is important, every facade detailed. Even the elevator doors.

I digress. But Art Deco is special because it was the last time a design aesthetic permeated even the smallest of items, however insubstantial or ubiquitous. Ever studied an electrical outlet? Of course not. Boring, made in China now, and yes, all the same. (You're going to see a treat in a future post, where I show you the world of Art Deco in the span of a single electrical receptacle.) For now, it's all about these two buildings. Take note of the stepping in their massing, the sleekness in their corners, and the electricity in their detailing. Enjoy!

The Chrysler is excellent at both night and day...
Exterior Deco

The Chrysler is excellent at both night and day...

Even the lobby clock gets its due. And take note that even a simple air duct grille can be beautiful.
Vertical Deco

Even the lobby clock gets its due. And take note that even a simple air duct grille can be beautiful.

The Empire State building lobby has a fantastic self-portrait to view... and the "upside down" image is actually what's on the ceiling of the Chrysler lobby.
Empire Deco

The Empire State building lobby has a fantastic self-portrait to view... and the "upside down" image is actually the mural on the ceiling of the Chrysler lobby.

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