What Are the Three Styles of Art Deco?


Art Deco is a captivating architectural and design style that first made its mark in the early 20th century. Originating from the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, this style quickly became a global phenomenon. Art Deco is renowned for its bold geometric shapes, rich colors, and lavish ornamentation. It didn’t just influence the architecture of the time; it left its stamp on interior design, fashion, and even everyday objects, making it a defining aesthetic of its era.

Historical Context of Art Deco

The world after World War I differed vastly. Societies were eager to leave behind the horrors of war and embrace an era of peace and prosperity. This period saw significant socio-economic changes, including technological advancements and urbanization, which played a crucial role in shaping Art Deco. The style mirrored the optimism of the time, embracing modern materials and techniques reflecting the era’s forward-looking ethos.

Technological advancements: Innovations in steel and concrete construction allowed for the taller, more striking buildings that became hallmarks of Art Deco architecture.

Urbanization: As cities grew, there was a demand for new buildings, from skyscrapers to cinemas and hotels, that reflected the modern age.

The Transition from Art Nouveau to Art Deco

Art Deco departed from the flowing lines and organic forms of its predecessor, Art Nouveau. Where Art Nouveau sought to mimic the asymmetry and fluidity of nature, Art Deco embraced symmetry, geometric shapes, and a streamlined aesthetic that suggested speed and efficiency.

Differences in style: Art Nouveau featured natural motifs and curvilinear forms, while Art Deco opted for angular, stylized designs.

Differences in philosophy: Art Nouveau was about embracing nature and organic growth, whereas Art Deco represented human achievement, progress, and the artificial world.

Role of Art Deco in Embodying the Era’s Optimism, Progress, and Modernity

Art Deco wasn’t just a style and symbol of the era’s aspirations. It reflected a world looking towards the future with hope and determination. This style captured the spirit of progress and modernity, making it an architectural manifestation of the age’s optimism.

Optimism: Art Deco buildings and designs often featured motifs of rising suns, fountains, and other symbols of life and progress.

Progress and modernity: Using new building materials and techniques symbolized a break from the past and a leap into a modern age of innovation and growth.

Art Deco is a testament to a transformative historical period, embodying the optimism and progress that defined the early 20th century. Its influence on architecture, design, and culture remains enduring, making it a fascinating subject for anyone interested in the interplay between art and societal change.

The Three Styles of Art Deco in Architecture

Art Deco architecture can be seen as a celebration of modern life and its infinite possibilities. This movement, emerging in the early 20th century, showcases a blend of functionality, elegance, and technology. Within Art Deco, three distinct styles stand out, each with unique characteristics and influences: Zigzag Moderne, Streamline Moderne, and Classical Moderne.

1. Zigzag Moderne

Zigzag Moderne is the quintessential expression of Art Deco’s fascination with geometric shapes and vertical lines. This style is characterized by:

Description: This style is about drama and contrast, featuring bold, angular compositions that draw the eye upward. The designs often include geometric motifs and stylized forms, creating a dynamic and visually striking effect.

Key Features:

  • They are stepped or ziggurat profiles that mimic ancient temples, enhancing the vertical thrust.
  • Strong vertical emphasis through the use of towering columns and spires.
  • Incorporation of new materials such as concrete, steel, and aluminum, showcasing the era’s technological advancements.

Iconic Examples:

  • The Chrysler Building in New York City, with its famous sunburst pattern and eagle gargoyles, is a prime example of Zigzag Moderne.
  • The Empire State Building, also in New York, epitomizes this style with its towering spire and geometrically patterned façade.

Modern facade of apartment building

2. Streamline Moderne

Streamline Moderne, also known as Art Deco Streamline, took inspiration from the aerodynamic design principle, emphasizing smooth lines and curved forms that suggest speed and efficiency.

Description: This style is less ornate than its Art Deco counterparts, focusing on flow and movement. It mirrors the technological advancements in transportation and the societal fascination with speed.

Key Features:

  • Sleek, horizontal lines that convey motion and fluidity.
  • Nautical themes, including ship-like railings and porthole windows.
  • Rounded corners, glass block windows, and the use of shiny materials like chrome.

Iconic Examples:

  • The Hoover Building in London, which features curved walls and vibrant colors, embodies the Streamline Moderne ethos.
  • The Miami Beach Architectural District, with its plethora of Streamline Moderne hotels and buildings, highlights the style’s popularity in the 1930s.

Red chairs outside the building

3. Classical Moderne

Classical Moderne blends classical architecture’s timelessness with Art Deco’s novelty, creating a grand, understated style.

Description: This style marries traditional elegance with modern simplicity. It takes the geometric shapes and materials typical of Art Deco but tempers them with classical motifs, resulting in a more refined aesthetic.

Key Features:

  • Use of classical elements such as columns and pilasters, albeit with a streamlined, simplified design.
  • Integration of Art Deco geometric patterns and motifs with traditional materials like stone and marble.

Iconic Examples:

  • The Los Angeles Central Library, combining Egyptian influences and classical proportions, showcases the Classical Moderne style.
  • The Rockefeller Center in New York City, particularly the GE Building, demonstrates how Classical Moderne can embody corporate modernity and traditional grandeur.

Each of these styles represents a different facet of the Art Deco movement, from the bold verticality of Zigzag Moderne to the sleek aerodynamics of Streamline Moderne and the elegant fusion found in Classical Moderne. Together, they illustrate the versatility and enduring appeal of Art Deco architecture, capturing the imagination of architects and onlookers alike for nearly a century.

Tall green trees aligned

Characteristics Common to All Three Styles

Though the three styles of Art Deco architecture—Zigzag Moderne, Streamline Moderne, and Classical Moderne—boast unique features, they share several core characteristics defining the Art Deco movement. These elements highlight the era’s technological optimism, the pursuit of beauty through symmetry, and a global fascination with new materials and forms.

Use of Modern Materials: All three styles prominently feature innovative materials of the time, such as stainless steel, aluminum, glass block, and reinforced concrete. These materials symbolized the era’s technological progress and allowed for new forms of architectural expression.

Emphasis on Symmetry and Order: Despite their differences, these styles all value symmetry and order, creating a balanced and harmonious visual experience. This principle is evident in the structured layout of buildings, the geometric patterns on facades, and the orderly arrangement of decorative elements.

Decorative Motifs: Art Deco architecture is renowned for its decorative richness, drawing inspiration from various sources, including nature, machinery, and ancient civilizations. Motifs such as sunbursts, fountains, and stylized floral patterns adorn buildings across all three styles, providing a visual link to the past while celebrating modernity.

Influence and Legacy

The legacy of Art Deco extends far beyond its peak in the 1920s and 1930s, influencing architectural and design philosophies across the globe and enduring in the public imagination as a symbol of elegance and progress.

Global Spread and Adaptation: Art Deco’s appeal was not confined to any region; it spread worldwide, adapting to local cultures and influences. In places like Miami, Shanghai, and Mumbai, Art Deco buildings reflect the fusion of this style with local architectural traditions, creating unique hybrids that enrich urban landscapes.

Impact on Later Architectural Movements: The principles of Art Deco have influenced numerous later movements, including mid-century modernism and postmodernism. Its emphasis on symmetry, use of modern materials, and decorative approach have been reinterpreted in various ways, showcasing the style’s lasting relevance.

Preservation Efforts and Continued Fascination: Today, Art Deco architecture is celebrated and preserved as a vital part of our cultural heritage. Preservation efforts worldwide aim to protect and restore Art Deco buildings, recognizing their historical significance and aesthetic value. Moreover, the style continues to fascinate architects, designers, and the public alike, a testament to its enduring appeal and influence.

The enduring legacy of Art Deco lies in its ability to encapsulate the optimism and dynamism of an era while remaining timeless and adaptable. Its influence on architecture, design, and popular culture underscores the style’s significance and enduring appeal, making it a cherished part of our architectural heritage.


In conclusion, exploring Art Deco through its three distinct architectural styles—Zigzag Moderne, Streamline Moderne, and Classical Moderne—reveals a movement that masterfully blends innovation with tradition and functionality with ornamentation. By delving into the common characteristics these styles share, such as the use of modern materials, a penchant for symmetry, and the integration of diverse decorative motifs, we gain insight into Art Deco’s enduring legacy and its global influence across cultures. The movement’s impact on subsequent architectural trends and the ongoing efforts to preserve its iconic structures underscore Art Deco’s pivotal role in shaping our visual and cultural landscape. This journey through the elegance, dynamism, and technological optimism of Art Deco not only highlights its historical significance but also invites us to appreciate its continued relevance and allure in the modern world, encouraging a deeper appreciation for how the past informs and enriches our present.

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