The name Art Deco was derived from the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts), which was held in Paris in the year 1925. There was an overwhelming demand from The Society of Decorative Artists, who wanted an exhibition to showcase the work of decorative arts. Products were allowed to be showcased if they were artistic in character yet had modern overtones. On display were items as diverse as crystal fountains, grilles; cabinets; mantlepieces; vases and much more. This style (also called Style Moderne), which eventually spanned diverse areas such as architecture, fashion, decorative art, jewelry design, interior design, posters, furniture, textiles and industrial design, lent an unorthodox, modern, topical feel to all creations with inherent design qualities of machine-made objects. Its highlight was the immediate relevance to the times in which these creations were created – primarily the 1920s and 1930s, with a resurgence after the 2nd World War. Its continuing impact is seen in decorative art, fashion and jewelry design even in recent times. Interestingly, when viewed now, the buildings transport us back to a cent`ury-old era, but the style itself chose to distance itself from the traditional architectural forms which focused on ornate, intricate or detailed designs.
Therefore, it stands unique in its contribution to the art and architecture world.
In this blog, we choose to focus more on Art Deco style with respect to architecture, while making references to its contributions in other areas, as we trace its journey. Although it consciously moved away from traditional architectural styles, the structure of Art Deco buildings drew on the geometric shapes, which one finds in Greco-Roman Classical style; Babylon; Assyria; Ancient Egypt and Aztec Mexico. Use of ziggurats and pyramids is one of the more common features as a direct reference to the buildings of the old civilizations. The sleekness and sophistication of the Art Deco style, coupled with use of expensive materials in its varied creations, gave it a symbolism of affluence and finesse. Simplicity in shapes; streamlined features; unvaried repetition of elements; symmetry and planarity are some of its characteristic features1. Some influences of Art Nouveau, the Bauhaus and Cubism are seen while decorative ideas were borrowed from American Indian, Egyptian, the Classical style and nature2. Human figures, animals, foliage and sun rays were common motifs. In the Indian context, we saw a lot more variety, which we touch upon a little later.
In the western world some stunning examples of Art Deco architectural style are New York’s Chrysler building; Empire State Building in New York; National Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels; The Delano Hotel in Miami; Rockefeller Center in New York and Palais de Chaillot in Paris (which showcases the work of several artists of the Art Deco Movement). Decorative glass; geometric patterns such as chevrons or zigzags; use of bright or contrasting colours; decorative windows with interesting grille patterns (specifically in the Indian context); tower-like façade to a stairway in the building; curvilinear balconies; tropical imagery in countries like India and symmetrically aligned windows for cross-ventilation were some of the most prominent features.
In India, the Art Deco Movement started in 1930s, with a wide variety of buildings showcasing this architectural style – movie theatres; residential buildings and offices specifically. The Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai are on the UNESCO World Heritage List, one of the select sites in India to be given this unique privilege. The UNESCO website states. “The Art Deco edifices, with their cinemas and residential buildings, blend Indian design with Art Deco imagery, creating a unique style that has been described as Indo-Deco3.” Both the Victorian Gothic and Indo Deco, according to UNESCO, ‘bear testimony to the phases of modernization that Mumbai has undergone in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.’ Mumbai is often cited, across publications, as having the largest number of Art Deco architectural buildings in the world; second only to Miami. A deep dive into the Indian scenario will give us a better appreciation of the architectural features. Streamlined buildings across Marine Drive and Malabar Hills, one of the poshest localities in Mumbai City, beautifully depict this architectural style. Being a port city, the unique characteristic of Art Deco in Mumbai was the nautical motif usage, be it portholes; ship-deck style balconies; waves or sun rays (which are a common theme across the world). It is not uncommon either to see sculpted reliefs with Indian motifs such as flowers; Hindu Gods, Goddesses and Symbols or imagery from rural India. These motifs were often displayed on the façade. Foremost features included flat roofs; rounded walls; curved facades; balconies designed for tropical weather; ornamented balconies; ziggurats4 as seen in Eros Cinema and New India Assurance Building (Mumbai); stand-out colours; grilles and typographical address design/architectural lettering in stucco, wood, metal or stone.
The curved contours were meant to replicate the design of aero planes, automobiles and ocean liners. The balconies were often in the design of a streamlined locomotive and could be either recessed from the façade or projecting out5. “Eyebrows”, was another interesting feature above windows and balconies; which served the purpose of a shade or short roof. Grilles could be seen on balconies, windows or even the staircase and gates, with varying designs. As in the western world, some buildings showcased ornamentation in the form of Egyptian mythology. Art was a medium to present an architectural work, either through frozen fountain symbology (of eternal life) or other features already mentioned such as tropical imagery. Geometric patterns in the form of bands, zigzags, chevrons and other shapes were very common. Banding, with vertical or horizontal bands in contrasting colours, was often painted on the façade. Compound walls were certainly not left out; reflecting the same shades of colours as the building; with grille work, motifs and bands matching the building in complete sincerity. Taking the beautifully crafted example of Seksaria building in Mumbai; the light post is built seamlessly into the wall; functioning as an extension of the compound wall itself. This was modified in 20216; which reflects admirably on the builder’s and city’s zeal to preserve this one-of-a-kind style.
Some other interesting examples are buildings that went all out on the nautical theme; with the structure resembling a cruise ship (a turret on the roof resembling a ship’s cabin) and rounded corners! An example being P. C. Daster’s Zaver Mahal in Mumbai. Suvernpatki & Vora; Sohrabji Bhedwar; K.P.Daver & Co and Gajanan B Mhatre7 are other leading names associated with these times and style. One interesting reflection of the technological advances of those times is the availability of artificial dyes on mass-scale, which enabled use of a variety of colours in the building. A peek into the advertisements in the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects (1930s – 1950s) gives us an enthralling sense of the use of colours8. The use of double tones, either through the use of paint or using different shades of stone, as evidenced in a variety of buildings in Mumbai, is a standard across all Art Deco structures.
In Mumbai alone, the buildings are so well-documented by enthusiasts and trusts that one gets a clear sense of the localities and the number of buildings with names and unique features, catalogued to the last detail. From the well-known areas of Churchgate, Colaba, Marine Drive and Oval to buildings located further out in Tardeo, Matunga, Mazgaon, Borivali; there are in all 38 localities which contain this enchanting style of buildings9. Cinema Houses with this style include Eros, Regal, Metro, New Empire and Liberty; while office buildings like United India Building and New India Assurance and apartments such as Green Fields, Sunshine, Court View, Shiv Shanti Bhuvan and Empress Court are other stand-out examples in Mumbai.
Art Deco is not exclusive to Mumbai alone; Kolkata, Madras, Kerala, Hyderabad and Delhi all boast of a sizeable number of buildings in this style, although their preservation remains a huge question mark. For those whose childhood spanned the 60s, 70s or 80s in their ancestral property, will probably reminisce about how their buildings certainly had Art Deco elements! In the cities just mentioned, there was a beautiful symbiosis of Art Deco with other architectural elements. Be it fusing traditional Indian forms such as Rajasthani motifs with Art Deco in Kolkata; seeing clear Art Deco elements in a traditional Mosque in Kerala; pivot windows in Hyderabad or architectural lettering on the buildings with Indian religious symbols and mythology in Mumbai, several Art Deco enthusiasts in these cities are amazed at the variety this style offers.10
The Art Deco style is distinct and its use of bold geometric designs; modern building materials and other typical features, mentioned earlier, leave a distinct aura around, not just the buildings but, in some cases, the entire city itself, as in the case of Mumbai. Many of us may not have recognized this style by its name, but one look at it, and we know it traces back to an era that carved a place for itself in the annals of architecture. While the style lingers in other fields such as art, jewelry and interior design, it certainly has the potential to survive in its essential form in the architectural world, even in these times. With Mumbai taking a significant lead in the preservation of this cherished treasure, we can only hope the other cities too take a leaf out of its book, to preserve or even amalgamate and innovate with this unique style!
4. Stepped pyramids, with receding storeys
8. Please see article: Mumbai’s Deco Colours and the Companies Who Created Them: An Examination of Print Ads from 1930s -50s for insights on use of colours in Art Deco buildings (artdecomumbai.com)
9. Please see www.artdecomumbai.com/inventory/
10. Worldarchitecture.org/chronicling art deco India version
Image credits: Author: Stephen Craven