Art Deco: Two Decades of Transatlantic Collaboration

If you think that French-American architectural ties boil down to swapping a series of variously sized Statues of Liberty, then you should delve into the Art Deco world, which offers a whistle-stop tour of a friendship set in stone. This is the challenge accepted by the Art Deco France-North America exhibition, held until March 6, 2023, at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris. Open your eyes and get ready to discover a style rooted in the Roaring Twenties.
The Champion, a streamlined train connecting New York to Florida, launched in 1939. © The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, photograph by Lynton Gardiner

How could the United States have forgotten the reaction to works by its first landscape painters at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris? When the American paintings were revealed, the French public declared: “The sons of Washington are not fit for this exhibition. In the midst of our old civilizations, the Americans are like a clumsy giant lost in an elegant ballroom.” That was all it took to convince North America that it would have to keep its gaze fixed on the Old Continent. In the same way that fog was English and spaghetti was Italian, good taste was resolutely French. What’s more, this mindset applied just as much to painting as it did to architecture. This saw many French experts invited to share their knowledge at U.S. universities and design buildings in keeping with European standards.

Meanwhile, generations of American students began crossing the Atlantic to immerse themselves in the esprit nouveau. But when World War I broke out, cooperation between the two continents ground to a halt. What was savage America to become without the enlightening influence of Paris? This context led to the hasty creation of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design in New York City in 1916, inspired by the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Architecture was taught alongside sculpture, mural painting, and interior decoration by American and French professors. The medium-term objective was to train all-American teams who could start work immediately. However, this first step towards independence was a small one, as the students’ education ended with the Paris Prize. The winner of this award was sent to Europe for two-and-a-half years and given the chance to join the top class at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the French capital.

Gabriel Guevrekian, Garden of Water and Light, 1925. Courtesy of Stéphane Boudin-Lestienne

Subsequent initiatives attempted to expand American autonomy. In 1919, while thousands of U.S. soldiers were waiting to be brought home, the American Expeditionary Forces Art Training Center was opened near Paris (see text box at the end). Four years later, in 1923, the idea of a permanent American school in France became a reality with the opening of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Fontainebleau, also known as the Académie Américaine des Hautes Etudes Artistiques en France. Every year, 70 U.S. students were hosted in a palace – the final residence of Emperor Napoleon I – and were taught classes by architect Jacques Carlu. Their curriculum also included the expertise of decorators and painters specialized in murals.

Despite these efforts, America’s attempts to become the architect of the cities of the future was still being held back by lukewarm or even bewildered reactions from France in the early 1920s. The French would often refuse to see any originality in U.S. constructions, such as aviator Gabriel Voisin, who shamelessly declared: “The gigantic American buildings, whose beauty cannot be denied, were first born on the Left Bank of the Seine from 1890 to 1910.” And while they admitted that certain projects were a success, the French would always try to take some of the credit. Historian Louis Réau stated: “The skyscrapers of New York City and Chicago have nothing in common with modern French architecture, and yet they are the work of former students of our Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.”

Anne Carlu, Diane the Huntress, 1927. © Musées de la ville de Boulogne-Billancourt, photograph by Philippe Fuzeau Nembhard
Illustration for the cover of the Empire State: A History brochure, 1931. © Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine/Musée des monuments français

Even when there seemed to be one admirer of the American school, any compliments would soon turn to cruel admonishment. “I have more to learn from the skyscrapers, from Broadway lit up at night, and from the bustle of New York City than from Place Vendôme in Paris,” the illustrator Paul Iribe told The New York Times. “The new form of art that we are impatiently waiting for will come from here, from your wonderful America […]. I want you to know that every day you’re creating new things, something irresistibly charming. To be frank, I think your worst enemy is poor taste… You have created everything except taste. You are using our Old World tastes for your modern ideas and they don’t work. A nation as new and magnificent must create its own taste.” The image of a “clumsy giant lost in an elegant ballroom” seemed to have stuck.

And Paris Created Art Deco

The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts opened in Paris on April 28, 1925, to an astonished crowd of more than 4,000 people. Over the next few months, almost six million curious visitors from all over the world came to see it. In the midst of cubist, reinforced cement trees by Robert Mallet-Stevens and the Martel brothers, 150 brand-new pavilions and galleries showcased modernist works by some 20,000 creators. The time of arabesques, tight curves, and exuberant interiors had ended; a new age of symmetry and elegant straight lines had begun! Although the U.S. did not exhibit any work – believing that it had nothing to offer Paris – a delegation of 104 experts were sent to the French capital to observe and record the latest trends. An official report was even published, which later inspired a series of traveling exhibitions across the United States.

The New York Times alone devoted some 100 glowing articles to the “Expo,” as it was known, while Edgar Miller christened Paris “the prophetic city.” It was the very first time a style had been met with unanimous international praise. The world changed in 1925, and the global objective was now “to be modern.” Art Deco therefore arrived just in time to shake things up. Chevrons, parallel lines, and aerodynamic styles soon seized the art and design worlds. In Manhattan on September 18 , 1928 , the first brick of the Chrysler Building was laid by American architect William Van Alen, a former student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Timothy Pflueger’s Paramount Theatre opened in Oakland in 1931, while the Griffith Observatory and the Pan-Pacific Auditorium launched in Los Angeles in 1933 and 1935 respectively. However, it was in Florida that the Art Deco style really took off, giving birth to a local variant known as “Tropical Deco” (see text box at the end).

Pierre Patout, Armchair from the first-class dining room on the Ile-de-France liner, 1927. © Ecomusée/Saint Nazaire Agglomération Tourisme, photograph by Jean-Claude Lemée
Roger-Henri Expert, The aviary in the winter garden of the Normandie liner, 1934. © Académie d’architecture/Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine

Around the same time, the Hollywood smart set had become obsessed with having their interiors revamped in the new style by French illustrators and designers such as Paul Iribe and Pierre-Emile Legrain. The covers of Vogue were produced by Georges Lepape, Pierre Brissaud, André Marty, and René Bouët-Willaumez. In 1926, when he first visited New York City, Bernard Boutet de Monvel – finally a French person who loved the United States! – became the most sought-after high-society portrait artist. When he wasn’t creating covers for Harper’s Bazar or finishing commissions for the Frick, du Pont de Nemours, or Vanderbilt families, the French painter produced some 20 canvases depicting the skyscrapers of New York City. As for Americans who had been unable to visit the 1925 Expo in Paris, the Ile-de-France (1927) and Normandie (1935) ocean liners owned by the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique became floating Art Deco showcases, symbolizing a French era and vision of art de vivre in which Prohibition had never existed…

Back Across the Atlantic

This time, the United States had learned its lesson. Not only did America welcome the Art Deco wave with open arms, it became the leading champion of the movement through massive urbanization projects. The U.S. even completed more buildings than France. The United States was relishing its victory when the Wall Street Crash of 1929 paralyzed the country and put a stop to the construction of apartment towers. In Manhattan, onlookers would mock the incomplete Empire State Building, which came to be known as the “Empty State Building.” As a consequence of the Great Depression, which reached its height in 1932, the U.S.A. began to turn inwards. From then on, if America was to prove its superiority, it would do so on home turf. In 1933, the exhibition A Century of Progress opened in Chicago, featuring ultramodern pavilions showcasing the streamline aesthetic for the very first time. This style – a cousin of the Art Deco movement – soon made its way into all sorts of everyday objects. Defined by its simple lines and curves inspired by the hulls of ocean liners, automobiles, planes, and locomotives, it delighted a new profession born into the era of mass consumerism: designers! America had finally found its own style.

Jacques Carlu, Project for the George Rogers Clark Memorial in Vincennes, Indiana, 1930. © SIAF/Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine
Roger-Henri Expert (with Pierre Patout), The French Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, 1939. © Académie d’architecture/Cité de l’architecture et du patrimoine

In 1934, finding himself out of work in America like many of his compatriots and colleagues, French architect Jacques Carlu decided to return to Paris. Despite the recession, he quickly found a new job. The former MIT professor was tasked with creating the new Palais du Trocadéro, which was supposed to replace the old, Neo-Byzantine-inspired edifice built on a hill overlooking the Seine in 1878. Drawing on past projects in the United States and Canada, and influenced by gigantic American proportions, Carlu submitted plans for the Palais de Chaillot in 1935. The main building was framed by two enormous pavilions raised on a vast esplanade offering breathtaking views over Paris and the Eiffel Tower. The similarities with the iconic buildings of Washington D.C. are plain to see. Everything had come full circle, with Paris-born Art Deco having evolved in America and made its way back across the Atlantic!

American Veterans at the School of French Style

The American Expeditionary Forces Art Training Center opened on March 24, 1919, in the former residence of dancer Isadora Duncan, in Meudon, near Paris. Its director, Lloyd Warren, assisted by his brother Whitney, had previously designed Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Almost 400 U.S. soldier-students completed an intensive three-month course. They were supervised by North American teachers, such as sculptors Solon Borglum and Rene Paul Chambellan, and painters Ernest Peixotto and Angel Zárraga. Many French figures also contributed, including architects Victor Laloux, Jacques Carlu, and Nicolas Forestier, and painter Jacques-Emile Blanche. The classes were supplemented with visits to the studios of artists such as Van Dongen and Antoine Bourdelle.

Art Deco in Florida

Miami Beach’s Greystone Hotel, designed by the architect Henry Hohauser in 1939.
© The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, photograph by Lynton Gardiner

The city of Miami had to be rebuilt after the hurricane of 1926, and developers settled on a simplified form of Art Deco. In less than 20 years, some 800 hotels, restaurants, bars, houses, and stores were built. Apartment complexes and hotels – standing between four and six stories high – were adapted to the climate and topped with roof terraces (a distinctive feature of this hybrid style, nicknamed “Tropical Deco”). The facades were lined with long windows, which were often framed by curved sunshades. In many cases, the front was also divided by a central concrete column bearing the name of the building, as seen at the Colony Hotel, designed by architect Henry Hohauser and built in 1935. Other architects, such as Lawrence Murray Dixon, Roy F. France, Albert Anis, and Igor Polevitzky, a former student of French designer Paul Cret in Philadelphia, also developed remarkable buildings that are now landmarked sites.

Art Deco France-North America, at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris through March 6, 2023.

Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.