Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America

sleek and glorious as any Art Deco masterpiece whether it be the grand Palmolive Building built in 1922 or the much lowlier but still spectacular Bell telephone Model 302 designed not by a noted artist or architect but instead by George Lum, a Bell Labs engineer in 1937,  Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America (Yale Press 2018; $47.75 on Amazon) showcases 101 key works coupled with more than 300 photos as well as critical essays and extensive research. Altogether, they comprise a wonderful, extensively curated and chronologically organized tome about the many facets–architecture, advertising, household objects, clothing, and food design–of a style that has fascinated so many of us for more than a century.

Robert Bruegmann, a distinguished professor emeritus of architecture, art history, and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was first asked to write the introduction to the book

thought I’d knock it out in a week,” says Bruegmann, a historian of architecture, landscape and the built environment.

That was back in 2011 and Bruegmann, author of several other books including The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918 (Chicago Architecture and Urbanism), quickly realized that it would take much more than that. He ended up editing and shaping this complex book, a task which included overseeing 40 writers and researchers, helping to find and collect photos and defining Art Deco and its impact on the city through design. He would spend the next five years, working 50 to 60 hours a week to do so.

One of the first questions we asked is how do we define Art Deco recalls Bruegmann.

“Should it be narrowly like the French-inspired luxury goods, which is the narrowest to the big tent which we ended up doing,” he says noting that many products (think as blasé as refrigerators, bicycles, radios and mixmasters) created in Chicago by companies like Motorola, Sunbeam and Schwinn, changed the world in a way that other forms of Art Deco didn’t.

It many come as a surprise that the term Art Deco wasn’t invented until the 1960s and came about because of its association with the Decorative Arts Fair Exposition of 1925 in Paris. But in Chicago, Art Deco, even before it was so named, was often about both beauty and usefulness.

“If I had to pick a single object to suggest what we tried to do in Art Deco Chicago, I would probably choose the Craftsman brand portable air compressor sold by Sears starting in 1939,” says Bruegmann about the cast iron aluminum machine which used, as described in the book, “a series of cooling fins that functioned as a heat sink while adding a streamlined visual flair to the product…This product alluded to themes of speed, transportation, and movement while remaining stationary.”

“It was related to the avant garde work of the Bauhaus who thought they were going to save the world through their designs,” says Bruegmann. “But they were too expensive. But Sears on the other hand made things affordable.”

Indeed, Bruegmann says that companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward did change the world.

“Up until the Sears catalogue, a lot of clothes outside of big cities, were handmade,” says Bruegmann. “Because Sears sold so many outfits through their catalogue, they could afford to send their designers to Paris to study the latest design and then come back and change them so they were less expensive, creating one of the most important social and political movements by making  designs for the masses. For a $1.99 a woman working in a packing plant or a farmer’s wife could wear a knockoff of a Paris dress.

Art Deco Chicago serves as the companion publication to the exhibition “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America” organized by the Chicago History Museum, which runs October 27, 2018–December 2, 2019. Proceeds from sales of and donations to Art Deco Chicago, which explores and celebrates Chicago’s pivotal role in the development of modern American design, will be used to support ongoing public education, research, and preservation advocacy of this critical period of modern American design.


What: Newberry Library presents Meet the Author: Robert Bruegmann, Art Deco Chicago

When: Thursday, November 29 from  to 7:30 p.m.

Where: Newberry Library, 60 West Walton Street, Chicago, IL

Cost: Free and open to the public

FYI: 312-943-9090;

8/18/06 University Scholar- Robert Bruegmann
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