Design Deconstruction: Art Deco

WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly IMAGES Ronnie Levitan, Jan de Villers, Paris Brummer and Getty Images


Decorative and sculptural, Art Deco was a statement of progress and celebration, where form made the greatest impression.

“Buildings that resemble vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and rocket ships.” That is how Cape Town architect Robert Silke simplifies the Art Deco aesthetic. Living in an Art Deco building himself – the Holyrood apartment block in Queen Victoria Street, built in 1938 – Robert is a passionate proponent of the movement that infiltrated art, fashion, jewellery, automobiles, furniture and architecture in the years between the two World Wars.

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The Holyrood apartment block in Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, was built in 1938.

His first major project was to turn one of Cape Town’s most recognisable buildings of this style, the Old Mutual building in the CBD, into an apartment block. The reinforced-concrete structure, clad in granite, holds another telltale Art Deco signature: stylised scenes and motifs on the façade – these portraying African indigenous cultures, carved into the stone.

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The exterior of Mutual Heights, the former Cape Town CBD headquarters of Old Mutual, features signature Art Deco motifs – in this case of African cultural elements – carved into the stone façade. The building was converted into an apartment block by architect Robert Silke.
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The details in the entrance lobby and boardroom at Mutual Heights are fine examples of Art Deco design.
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The details in the entrance lobby and boardroom at Mutual Heights are fine examples of Art Deco design.

Art Deco got its name from Paris’s 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), which recognised a new post-WWI style that combined craftsmanship with materials such as ebony, ivory and marble. Notable features were geometric lines – said to be influenced by Mayan art and the structures of ancient Egypt – and a rich colour palette. This was a period to show off and rejoice.

As silent films were punched with sound, movie theatres became more elaborate in response, with many of these buildings still being some of the best preserved examples of the Art Deco style. The age of ocean travel was also doused with this air of evolution, and France’s leading decorators at the time, André Mare and Louis Süe, decked ships in the movement’s ornamented style. Christofle silverware and Lalique glassware embraced this new approach to design, and even Cartier jewellery incorporated more colourful gemstones into ever more embellished settings. “Art Deco celebrated the technology of the here and now,” says Robert, “but it also celebrated – with excitement and optimism – the possibilities of the future.”

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Lalique columns in the opulent dining room of the French ocean liner Normandie.

In the US, the Chrysler Building, completed in 1930, became a high point of this style, its sunburst-patterned spire shining in reflective stainless steel. Later in the ’30s, the ziggurat (stepped) rooflines that had dominated the style transformed into curved corners and long horizontal lines with nautical features, such as the railings found on boats and porthole windows. This form of Art Deco – known as Streamline Moderne – is particularly prevalent in Miami and Los Angeles.

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The spire of the Chrysler Building in New York is clad in reflective stainless steel.
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Colony Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida.

Our own cities of Durban and Springs were influenced by this period too; and Robert lists the Bloemfontein post office with its stone carvings, and Johannesburg’s Ansteys Building as other local gems from the Art Deco years.

Although Art Deco made way for the Modernist movement, it never fled fully. Robert considers it to have lived on in Italian Futurism and Googie architecture, and through the work of the late Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid. “They’re streamlined and futuristic,” he says of the buildings that emerged from these three iterations of what he sees as Art Deco successors. “It’s not always entirely about function…”

Looking for more on design? Read all about the Bauhaus design movement.