Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Local Art Deco Treasure Trove

Last week, on my way to Yoga class with a friend, I stumbled upon an absolute architectural gem in the heart of old town Pasadena.   Heading into the basement of a multi-story building on Colorado Boulevard, we first noticed the beautiful, ornately-carved, oversized solid wood doors of the ladies powder room.   As we made our way to class, I noticed a placard with the building’s name, which read:  “The Fish Building, 26 E. Colorado Blvd.”  We were 20 minutes early to class, so I chatted up the staff commenting on the lovely Art Nouveau style of the building.  “Take them up in the elevator,” our yoga teacher instructed the receptionist at the front desk.  My ears perked up immediately and my heart almost skipped a beat.   What’s in the elevator?  I wondered with anticipation.  I had a feeling I was in for a treat.

The receptionist grabbed the key to the elevator and informed us only residents of the building were allowed in.  As the three of us stepped into the elevator, I almost fainted with elation.  I had never been so close to original, hand-crafted, Art Deco/Art Nouveau architectural details before.  The mirrored walls of the elevator were framed by light-colored, swirling organic solid wood shapes, similar to those in the Ladies Room, and there was a parquet inlay in the floor.  No detail was overlooked, as this is one of the foremost characteristics of the period.

Now, I use Art Deco and Art Nouveau interchangeably when describing this building because the details reflect influences of both movements.  The organic shapes are from the earlier period, Art Nouveau, while the geometric shapes, chevrons and color schemes are from the latter Art Deco.  The Fish Building in Pasadena was completed in 1929 and therefore falls squarely into the Art Deco period, however, the Art Nouveau details in the building are unmistakable. 

It’s important to remember the ethos of these aesthetic movements and their relationship to the social and artistic climate at the time.  Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Art Nouveau movement was a reaction against the preceding and rather stuffy Victorian era.  Art Nouveau cultivated a close relationship with the fine arts, incorporating hand-painting and sculpture into the architecture and interior design.  Nature was the dominant theme, and therefore curvilinear forms reigned supreme. 

Fast forward a few decades to 1925, when the World’s Fair in Paris, L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Moderne, first introduced the style that would forever be referred to as “Art Deco” for short (an abbreviated version of the preceding French name).  While earlier movements, like Arts and Crafts, focused on function and minimal ornamentation, Art Deco, a primarily fashion-oriented style, was all about the fluff.  This style mirrored the social progress and art movements of the day.  The largely geometric, rectilinear shapes drew upon cubism and African tribal art, while the zigzags and chevrons were designed to represent electricity and radio waves.  The goal within this movement was to find a “new style” in every detail, and even the stepped forms in furniture and light fixtures suggested the architectural silhouette of skyscrapers that stretched across a metropolitan skyline. 

All that being said, from the pictures below, it’s easy to distinguish Nouveau from Deco.  The organic woodwork in the elevator and powder room, as well as the intricate stained glass, are strongly influenced by Art Nouveau (Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of the fathers of this movement in the United States).  The geometric shapes, chevrons, and bold colors seen elsewhere in the Fish Building are classic Art Deco design elements.  Both periods exude a bold, eclectic and unique style that is an unabashed departure from preceding periods.  So if you ever have the chance to look up-close at original Art Deco/Nouveau architecture and design, never pass up the opportunity--and the next time you find yourself in Pasadena, take a walk down Colorado Boulevard and look for The Fish Building.  I can guarantee you’ll be in for a visual treat, and you just may be inspired, as I was, to add a little glitter from the Golden Age to your décor as well. 

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