Art Deco and Radios -- Web Version


As we learned from Gerald Schneider's February 1995 article in A.R.C. on the Steinway Capehart, he and his wife Dorothy have a collection of over fifty radios. None is stored; all are displayed properly throughout their home. Obviously, their interest in decorative sets as home furnishings would lead to the following exploration of Art Deco motifs in radios. (Editor)

[Link to larger version of this issue's cover, displaying "Art Deco" radios
(60kb, JPG format).]

Unsure of what "Art Deco" means despite using or hearing the term used all the time? You are not alone. Not even experts agree on an exact definition.

Dictionaries published before 1968 will not help either. That is because the expression "Art Deco" was first popularized that year by Bevis Hollier in his book titled Art Deco. He used Art Deco as shorthand for "Arts Decoritifs" taken from the name of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoritifs et Industriels Moderns held in Paris, France, in 1925.

Art Deco was simply known as "moderne," "modern," or "modernistic" in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a classification for a hodgepodge of designs used between World Wars I and II. The aim of Art Deco, if any, is to portray through design the essence of modernism. This could embrace the age of machines, technology, jazz, and other symbols of 20th century progress. Almost any high-style, vogue fashion can be labeled "Art Deco," even if awkward. But Art Deco is typically identified by certain features, including extravagant ornamentation, decorative geometry, or streamlining.

An Air King Model 52, ca. 1933
Figure 1. An Air King Model 52, ca. 1933.
(Photo by Mike Baird)

That which some call "high deco" features the extravagant ornamentation and decorative geometry of French art moderne. This design matured in French salons, and was the focus of the 1925 Paris exposition mentioned earlier. Mixed in were showy motifs of ancient civilizations with art nouveau and sprightly figures.

Fabrication materials included but were not limited to ivory, ebony, bent expensive woods, shiny metals, and silk brocade. The old and the new were combined. Added often as well were intense blazes of colors streaking along slick and other surfaces.

Decorations of lightning bolts, comets, and arrows were used to suggest dynamism, science, and movement. Squares and other geometric shapes followed from influences of cubism, constructivism, futurism, and related art "isms."

Tossed in also were slender, classical icons such as nude nymphs, doing what looks like aerobic exercises. Also depicted were peacocks, various flying birds, and leaping gazelles and deer. Baroque in concept, exuberant French art moderne life forms seem to want to escape from their confines.

Ziggurat constructions with consecutively receding stories (called "zig-zag moderne" by one authority) were inspired by pyramids. Similar designs were adopted for skyscrapers for esthetics, and to allow sunshine in between buildings. Pillars and columns used were modeled after those found in Greco-Roman temples.

French art moderne design also borrowed ideas from what was found in King Tutankhamen's tomb opened in 1922. Coiled adders, chariots, porcelain goddesses, and other old Egyptian styles became part of Art Deco as a result.

Radios in general from the late 1920s right up to the 1950s incorporate French art moderne stying. Stressing geometric elements, the 1933 Air King Model 52, shown in Figure 1, is a fine example of ziggurat construction. An excellent example of the same is the 1936 Sparton Model 1186 Nocturne radio. Countless so-called "ordinary" radios in most everyone's collection should be prized because of their Art Deco connections!

Chinese decoration crept into French art moderne design sparked by popular Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels. Notable examples are the Chinese Chippendale patterns in the 1929 Crosley Gemchest radio models. This decorative radio appears in Figure 2.

A Crosley Model 609 Gemchest, ca. 1929
Figure 2. A Crosley Model 609 Gemchest, ca. 1929.
(Photo by Gerald Schneider)


Stylistically changed, later Art Deco was sometimes dubbed "Depression modern" because it blossomed during the 1930s Great Depression. I prefer the name "American art moderne" since its manufacture was perfected in the United States, and to contrast it to French art moderne. American art moderne leans heavily on streamlining, along with the decorative geometry that it shares with French art moderne.

Trademarks of American art moderne commodity designs include sweeping, parallel lines and rounded corners -- great for machine output! In fact, American art moderne was the first high fashion adapted for the assembly line.

Repeal of Prohibition in 1933 further stimulated American art moderne development. Americans, able to drink openly, were encouraged to stock home bars with affordable, yet flashy, bar accessories. Art Deco design could do the job. Aiding the effort was the availability of newer, less costly, machine-friendly, malleable metals and plastics. Among the metals were aluminum, chrome, and nickel. Plastics included celluloid, melamines, phenolics, and other resin formuations.

The need for cheaply-made merchandise with public appeal grew as the Depression lengthened. Extravagant decoration gave way to greater simplicity and restraint in design to allow cost-effective, machine mass-production. Economic hardship deepened its impact on American art moderne.

A new profession emerged full bloom in the 1930s -- industrial designer. Industrial designers applied American art moderne to consumer products to attract Depression buyers. American art moderne was alluring and looked expensive, but it could be mass-produced by machines at lower cost.

Leading industrial designers included Norman Bel Geddes, Frederick E. Greene, Clarence Karstadt, Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Harold L. Van Doren, Gardiner Vess, and George Walker. They brought American art moderne applied to everyday furnishings -- including radios -- to its zenith (no pun intended).

Examples of radios by these designers are the 1940 Emerson Patriot Model 400 by Bel Geddes; the 1939 Fada Model L-56 by Greene; the 1938 Silvertone Model 6110 by Karstadt; the 1946 Hallicrafters SX-42 (the first electronic device to win an international design award from New York's Museum of Modern Art) by Loewy; the 1936 Sparton Nocturne by Teague; the 1933 Air King, mentioned earlier in Figure 1, by Van Doren; the 1935 Kadette Jewel Model 43 by Vess, shown in Figure 3; and 1939 Detrola Pee Wee by Walker.

A Kadette Jewel Model 43, ca. 1935
Figure 3. A Kadette Jewel Model 43, ca. 1935.
(Photo by Maurice Moore)

The 1934 Machine Art exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art promoted commodity designs that revealed the inner workings of things instead of hiding them behind contrived facades. Featured were commercial and household products made by and inspired by machines. Machine parts such as gears, cams, and axles took on new importance as models for design of products. Also persuasive were German Bauhaus "functionalism" (form follows function), and the austere, so-called "international style."

Additionally, designers turned to streamlining to accommodate low-cost, machine mass production, while making salable, modern-looking merchandise. Tear-shaped forms originally used on airplanes and trains to reduce air resistance were now applied to everything. Commercial and household furnishings appeared with blunt, rounded fronts and tapering rears, suggesting speed as in mechanized transportation.

Among radios with streamlined designs are the 1940 Fada Bullet models, and the 1946 Belmont Model 6D111, shown on the cover. The epitome of tapering can be found in the 1937 Climax 35 Ruby radio.


Regard for Art Deco peaked at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. Tastes changed! Many viewed streamlining used needlessly in consumer products as kitsch. Household furnishings, after all, have no need to overcome wind resistance. They do not require the tear-shaped forms of planes, trains, and automobiles.

Overly decorative geometry had dropped from fashion by World War II. Simple geometry in furnishings became the norm.

Interest in Art Deco has revived in recent years. We certainly see that influence reflected in radio collecting. Whether that interest will continue remains to be seen. If price is a consideration, radio collectors will want to be careful about the Art Deco radios they buy. Unfortunately, standards being as varied as they are, universal agreement on good Art Deco design is lacking. Caveat emptor (buyer beware) or carpe diem (seize the day) -- you have to decide.

Photo credits: Mike Baird, Maurice S. Moore, and Gerald Schneider.

© 1995 by Gerald Schneider. All rights reserved.

(Gerald Schneider, 3101 Blueford Rd., Kensington, MD 20895-2726)

Gerald Schneider does not "stockpile" radios. His goal is "to furnish the entire house with things that are radios." Among the many sets that decorate his home, those with an oriental motif predominate. Of note are three 1929 Crosley Gemchest radios in different colors. Almost the entire collection is tuned to WWDC-AM, which plays music of the 1940s and 1950s.

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