It's hard to think of Miami Beach without picturing art deco architecture. From the main drag of Ocean Drive to the post office on Washington Avenue to the Cadillac Hotel on Collins, South Beach is known to locals and tourists alike for its unique patchwork of pastel buildings with streamlined silhouettes and geometrically ornamented façades. And for many Miamians, that architectural styling defines what art deco is.
The reality, though, is there's much more to art deco than the buildings on South Beach that adorn so many postcards. The architectural side is just one facet of the deco school of design. There's a long, beautiful history to the style that you'll soon be able to explore in an exhibition coming to the heart of South Beach.
The Wolfsonian-FIU will display more than 100 pieces from its collection to illustrate the development of art deco over the years, creating a sort of genealogy of the style. "Deco: Luxury to Mass Market" will be on view beginning Friday, October 19, marking the first time the Wolfsonian-FIU has held a major exhibition devoted to art deco.
The exhibition begins in Paris in 1925 with the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Though much of the art presented at the fair was considered art nouveau, it was this expo that essentially introduced the world to art deco. According to the exhibition's curators, Silvia Barisione and Shoshana Resnikoff, art deco would not remain a strictly French affair for long.
"Art deco is associated with France because of the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in 1925," Barisione explains, "and the name itself comes from that exposition, but it was not just in France. It also spread all over Europe, taking inspiration from the local traditions and local histories."
She and Resnikoff worked together on the exhibition by curating various aspects of the show. Barisione, who hails from Italy, was mainly in charge of the European side of the exhibit, while Resnikoff was responsible for the American interpretations of art deco.
"On the U.S. side," Resnikoff says, "we look at the designers in America, especially immigrant designers, who have come from Europe and have settled in the U.S., who are looking at first at kind of European antecedents but then over time develop an American language for art deco. And we see that first with skyscrapers and the sort of romance of the height and the drama and the glamour of the skyscraper."
Another architectural side of art deco that became part of that American language of design was streamlining. Though the über-modern aesthetic got its start in Europe, it was in the United States that the smooth curves and hard, straight lines of streamlining flourished as the form was applied to trains, planes, boats, buildings, and cars, essentially embodying the way much of America envisioned the future.
That styling of the future was not only the domain of architects and automotive designers, but it would also come to be a feature of many everyday household objects, from toasters to radios to chrome-plated tobacco pipes. That's part of what makes this exhibition so interesting: You can probably close your eyes and imagine an art deco hotel, but can you imagine if everything you owned were art deco?
"With the objects that come from the Wolfsonian collection, and with just a few loans, we tried to find what was unexpected," Barisione notes. "You’d expect to see something which is very French — and we have some very beautiful French objects — but we have some that come from the Netherlands, Italy, India, Germany, Austria. We tried to give a more global vision of art deco."
And though much of the exhibition shows viewers all the manners in which art deco manifested itself far and wide — from Indian vases to American desks and dresser drawers — the retrospective culminates with Miami Beach's adoption of the art deco style and the buildings that stand just outside the museum.
In addition to examining the trajectory of how art deco arrived in South Beach in the work of architects who sought inspiration at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, the exhibition re-creates what some of the hotel rooms of the day might have looked and felt like. But the exhibition goes beyond the confines of a hotel room. Not only that — it goes beyond the confines of the museum itself.
"One of the things that we’re hoping to do in the exhibition is give people a sort of visual vocabulary for these styles so that they can go out into these neighborhoods. In fact, we’re putting together a self-guided walking tour," Resnikoff says. "We on staff spent many, many, many hours reminding ourselves of some of the highlights of the neighborhood and researching them and connecting them to the collection, so we think that it will be a really great finale for the exhibition, but also just a really great activity to do on South Beach."
"Deco: Luxury to Mass Market." Friday, October 19, through Saturday, October 27, 2019, at the Wolfsonian-FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-993-3300; wolfsonian.org. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $8 for students, seniors, and youth aged 6 to 18; museum members, staff of the State University System of Florida, and children under 6 get in free.
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