Recently, there was a furor on Twitter concerning work done in Jersey City’s city hall building. Because of coronavirus lockdowns, the city decided to take advantage of people being unable to come in, and flooring was part of the renovation job. The 1960s vinyl floor tiles were ripped out to reveal beautiful Art Deco tiles.
We need to talk about what the olds did to the nation’s floors. https://t.co/6mviQR7YnU
— julius, intern (@arguendope) May 4, 2020
The uproar that ensued questioned why such exquisite tilework was covered up in the first place. What the hell was wrong with the Silent Generation for replacing quality craftsmanship with cheaper and more uniform materials that have gradually declined in quality over the years?
Art Deco in and of itself is a fascinating style and movement. As for why Art Deco relics were destroyed or covered up throughout time, I’ve got a hypothesis that lies in the very act of commodifying housing, even though it was a public building that spurred the very discussion.
How Art Deco Manifested in New York and New Jersey in the 1920s
Before it came to New York, Art Deco had its origins in France. Characterized by a blend of black, silver, and gold interspersed with golds and silvers amid Cubism-inspired geometric patterns and French Revolution-era furnishings, Art Deco style became emblematic of the sheer decadence of the Gilded Age.
Art Deco buildings, decor, and artwork were considered aspirational styles that were synonymous with luxury and embracing technology. These weren’t cheap designs mass-produced for Home Depot and the same three real estate conglomerates mowing down my city’s landmarks to build more overpriced luxury condos foreign investors will use as banks. The highest-quality materials and craftsmanship were deployed on everything from window sills and friezes to the floors, ceilings, fixtures, and art that differentiated one building from the next in the concrete jungle.
Smaller cities across the Hudson in New Jersey couldn’t compete with New York’s skyscrapers, but they were able to take advantage of lower density and less need for utilitarianism by using bold colors and designs that gave places like Jersey City and Bayonne their own flair and identity. Then at the northern tip of the city, my borough of The Bronx, the whole lower segment of the Grand Concourse was an incredibly desirable area that is still rich with Art Deco architecture. If you drive or take the Bx1/Bx2 bus all the way to the end at Mosholu Parkway, you’ll see the “Fish Building” which is as breathtaking indoors as it is from outside. My borough is a land that time forgot: you’ll find structures dating back to when my ancestors arrived and there was still farmland, and they gravitated to Bronx Park East because the area reminded them of Eastern Europe.
Art Deco was prominent in commercial structures as well, like the Brill Building above. These facades were meant to make you stop and stare, then imagine the splendor that must lay within. Like the 2020s, it was a time of unimaginable wealth inequality after a major war and pandemic! Isn’t it pretty on the nose how much history repeats itself?
While often associated with the Gilded Age and 1918 flu pandemic, Art Deco didn’t get its name until 1925, at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. The variety of styles that comprised it were already in use in Paris and other parts of western Europe prior to World War I, but arts décoratifs had been used to describe design principles as early as the mid-late 19th century. “Decorative art” encompassed jewelry, glassblowing, textiles, furniture, and other artisans who crafted objets d’art and wearable art. Department stores in Paris were instrumental to the popularity of Art Deco styles, featuring furniture, home goods, jewelry, and more that elevated these luxurious and futuristic design principles. The first wave of European immigration into New York was still going strong and Paris was often a stopover on many immigrants’ journeys. It wouldn’t be long before Art Deco made its way across the Atlantic and into the show-stopping buildings being erected in and near the city.
But the reason why Art Deco took off so much in New York and the metro area is because it’s a style that’s full of dualities and contradictions, much like the city itself. We’re a land of extremes: you’ve either been here FOREVER, or you’re gone in less than three years to go to your life’s next step. Art Deco didn’t just use some of the finest and even rarest materials in the world, it also embodied a diverse variety of art and architecture. Egyptian, Persian, Germanic, Chinese, French, Japanese and other cultures’ motifs, colors, and patterns became common elements of Art Deco buildings and decor, just like the diversity of New York makes it the force that it is.
But as time marched on and construction in the city demarcated into prewar and postwar, modernist and International Style architecture began eclipsing the fabulous decadence of Art Deco motifs. As World War II ended, families needed affordable housing in and near the city so you either went to the tract homes in New Jersey or Long Island, went north to The Bronx, or engaged in the utter masochism of going co-op if you stayed in the city and didn’t want to keep renting. Similarly to what happened with France’s rebuilding after World War II, Roche Bobois purveyed practical and durable home furnishings to help families stabilize before the economic boom meant they could get more daring and decadent. Gotham City needed similarly practical and durable new housing for veterans and their families, stat.
The tenements of olde were condemned and buildings with higher density and safer floorplans sprung up in their wake. But among the prewar buildings that survived, why did the Silents and Greatest Generation suddenly go hogwild with laminate and other cheap materials that covered up the splendor of Art Deco tile and hardwood floors?
Linoleum, Vinyl, and Cheaper Materials Were Easier to Clean
The name “linoleum” comes from linseed oil. Its invention actually predates Art Deco significantly, as Frederick Walton invented it in England in 1855. He serendipitously discovered that linseed oil could solidify if it wasn’t sealed and thought it could serve as a rubber substitute given that Indian rubber was expensive and rare at the time. After years of experimentation, Walton perfected linoleum and it took England then Europe by storm before reaching across the pond. Both the US and Royal Navies took interest in linoleum because it was durable and waterproof, and homeowners in areas prone to flooding were also piqued.
At the same time, vinyl was being invented though it didn’t start being used as a floor covering until the 1930s. Linoleum began to succeed vinyl for covering up floors, and mostly because it was waterproof and easier to clean. That’s why a lot of hardwood floors get covered with ugly linoleum pieces from the 40s and 50s: it was easier to clean.
As the nuclear family trope was socially engineered off the charts after World War II, people began to spend more time at home. Sure, you still went out. It’s not like the 1918 or 2020 lockdowns. But women now had to live up this June Cleaver ideal and make maintaining the home top priority. And when your husband and kids tracked in dirt all over the place and you had to clean the floors constantly before going to town on a bunch of Quaaludes, you didn’t want to get on your hands and knees with a scrub brush while there was cooking, laundry, and shopping to be done. Covering the floor with linoleum meant a quick swipe with a mop was all you needed. Like imagine stepping in dog shit and then it gets stuck in the crevices of those beautiful Art Deco tiles: a few wipes with a mop are easier on your hands and back than having to get in there with a toothbrush on your hands and knees.
Carpeting also began to replace hardwood and Art Deco tilework for two reasons. One being that in the northeast specifically, it was billed as a way to keep your home warmer and more energy-efficient. The other being that because of boom times, buying mass amounts of carpet was a way to show off, so you even put it in the bathroom. Cleaning carpet can be both expensive and a pain in the ass, but a vacuum cleaner or outsourcing the job to a professional carpet steamer still proved to be easier to maintain than hardwood floors that easily scratched and Art Deco tiles that were harder to clean.
Blandness Stabilized Resale Value
Ultimately though, it comes down to the commodification of real estate.
At the height of Art Deco, designers were unafraid to be bold. My old apartment in the west Bronx had its original Art Deco pink and black bathroom with three different floor tile colors that were obviously painstakingly sought from the same manufacturer. While living in a prewar apartment can be a contentious experience, especially if you read about my adventures in that piece on carpeting in the bathroom, the lobbies and some rooms certainly have the ghosts of a simpler and more glamorous era lurking around.
As homeownership rose in and out of the city as a sign of postwar prosperity, people fixed up their homes to their liking for both aesthetics and convenience. 1950s kitchens were extremely colorful and cheery, a sign that the miserable wartime shortages were over and you could change the curtains to match your poodle skirt every day of the week if you wanted. And as Art Deco motifs began to reappear in the 1960s, people fought like hell to maintain buildings like my old place and the other holdouts in The Bronx, because each one had such distinct colors and vibes that were so obviously old, but definitely not uniform.
But once it became normalized to treat your home like an investment instead of a source of shelter and stability, people began laser-focusing on resale value. Realtors and HOAs issued warnings that you better not paint the walls like a goth club or get that Slimer-green kitchen you always wanted or else you’d never be able to sell the place.
Which let’s be real here: this all definitely depends on the location, the shape of the home, how far out you went, and the kind of buyers you’re attracting. New York and the Bay Area will always be hotbeds, a rotted crackhouse with neon orange ceilings and a cracked shower stall that dispenses Surge instead of water would still get eight buyers fighting to the death to buy it for $1.5M if it was close enough to major entertainment or commercial streets.
Beige and white became the go-to inoffensive colors that would be move-in ready for any buyer, and the same stock H&G fixtures and design principles look good splashed on a real estate website. It’s not the same as standing in front of it and being able to feel that history, or exciting novelty, and then visualize how you’d make it your own.
Millennial homeownership is very slowly beginning to increase, but in the wake of both the pandemic and incomes straying farther from housing prices, it will still be a while before Millennial homeowner trends actually start to surface. With the outrage over Art Deco treasures being suppressed or destroyed, we could very well see an Art Deco renaissance once we stop being eaten alive by egregious rents and out-of-reach housing prices. Why leave a bunch of beige shacks for Gen Z? Call me when the house looks like this.
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.