The 1920s was the decade that dazzled. Nearly a century has passed since that time, but much of the architecture and design is still, as they’d say, the bee’s knees, and the optimism and glamour of the era remains strong in the popular imagination. This year, New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum looks back at the 1920s in “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s.”
Taking the Jazz Age as the historical concept uniting design and culture, the exhibition features jewellery, costumes, furniture, art, posters, tableware, textiles and architectural fixtures. It does not express the words “art deco,” but it undoubtedly is. The influence of Art Deco was far reaching in the 1920s and 1930s. So how did it impact design and architecture in Australia and how has it fared nearly a century later?
America emerged as a global power post-World War I and the 1920s became a time of rapid modernisation in technology and culture that reshaped everyday life. Prohibition kick-started what would become known as the “roaring 1920s,” and with the banning of booze came a rise in speakeasies, the popularity of jazz music and the relaxing of social conventions. In need of a new style to express this modern life, architects and designers looked to their European contemporaries and the ideas and work that emerged through the Wiener Werkstätte, de Stijl, Bauhaus and Paris World’s Fair.
As the 1920s progressed, Art Deco developed as a fresh, young national aesthetic imbued with the rhythm and spirit of jazz music. Art Deco represented an American identity based on progress, innovation and consumption, and by the 1930s it was popularly associated with industry and commerce: of booming cities, soaring skyscrapers and new transport technologies.
A modern sensibility in design and architecture was visible in Australia in the 1920s, but Art Deco didn’t fully take hold until the mid-to-late 1930s as the country recovered from the Great Depression. Marking a shift from British design models and, as in America, expressing the optimism of progress and modernity, Art Deco forms – streamlined curves, strong geometries, stepped skyscrapers, chevrons, sunbursts and Classical reliefs – could be seen in a broad spectrum of architecture, interior design, graphic design and decorative arts.
The ideas and forms of Art Deco filtered into Australia by way of overseas architects practising in Australia, Australian architects travelling abroad, and through architectural magazines and journals. Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre (1921—24) is an early example of Art Deco in Australia. Designed by US architects Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin, it had Art Deco flourishes in the stained-glass window and door panels of the ‘Ladies Boudoir.’
As construction increased after the Great Depression, Art Deco forms could be seen in housing, offices, civic buildings, monuments, hotels and theatres in urban and suburban areas across Australia. In Sydney, the ANZAC War Memorial (1934) merged decorative sunbursts and intricate sculptures with a stepped ziggurat form (with similarities to that of a Hugh Ferris drawing exhibited in “The Jazz Age”). Potts Point had one of the first tall Art Deco apartment blocks, Adereham Hall (1934), in Australia; the Hayden Orpheum (1935) brought the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood cinema to Cremorne; and the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board Building (1939) had sweeping horizontal and vertical lines.
Associated with leisure and luxury, Art Deco forms emerged in the building of theatres, cinemas, pubs and hotels. Tooth & Co. employed architects such as Sidney Warden and Sidney Ancher to design hotels and pubs that would positively promote the brewery’s image. Encouraged to create stylistically distinctive venues, the architects incorporated Art Deco’s strong geometries, bright colours, stepped forms and sweeping curves to attract patron’s attention.
Art Deco was on the decline by World War II, and in the 1940s gave way to a more restrained architecture and what would become the International Style. While many examples have been sacrificed, a great number of buildings still remain with many preserved or refurbished to retain their Art Deco decadence and spirit.
The Clare Hotel in Chippendale, designed by Warden, was a much-loved drinking hotel in its heyday. Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects refurbished the pub as part of The Old Clare hotel development, reintroducing Warden’s original island bar (removed in the 1970s), and encasing it in vibrantly coloured glass. The former Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board Building is now the Primus Hotel Sydney. Woods Bagot transformed the interiors with a modern Art Deco interpretation that references the original stone and timber veneer paneling, and features polished red Scagliola-clad columns and glazed ceramic tiling.
The forms of Art Deco and the spirit of the Jazz Age have been reignited in other areas of design and culture. Jenny Kee designed an exuberant textile for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 that has allusions to Viktor Schreckengost’s “The New Yorker (Jazz) Punch Bowl” (1931). There has been a return of the Prohibition-era speakeasy with hidden and dimly lit drinking dens popping up across Australia’s urban centres. And who can forget the glitz and glamour of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013)?
Despite nearly a century having passed, the 1920s are still alive and well in the popular imagination. Art Deco was imbued with the rhythm and spirit of the Jazz Age and it embodied a sense of optimism and modernity, as it still does now.
“The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s” is co-organised by the Cooper Hewitt and Cleveland Museum of Art. It is on view at the Cooper Hewitt from 7 April to 20 August 2017, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 30 September 2017 to 14 January 2018.