Art Deco vs Modernism: what’s the difference?

Picture of Danny Brewer

Danny Brewer

When it comes to Art Deco vs Modernism, these two enduringly fashionable architectural movements often get confused. Part of that is down to the overlapping eras from when they emerged, but also their shared similarities. They both discard the flowery decoration of the Victorians and Edwardians, but there are major differences that give Art Deco and Modernism their own particular flavour.

So let’s take a look at how they came about, how one gave birth to the other, and how to tell the difference between the two.


What is Art Deco?

Art Deco emerged from the rip-roaring 1920s, where decadence and spending on luxury materials were all the rage. Originally called ‘Style Moderne’, the term Art Deco wasn’t coined until much later in the 1960s. It’s derived from the Exposition Internationale des Art Decoratifs et Industriels et Modernes, held in Paris in 1925.

Art Deco was a direct response – and reaction against – the Art Nouveau style of the late 1800s. Taking inspiration from ancient Egypt, Bauhaus and Cubism, the Art Deco movement embraced new technologies such as Sheffield stainless steel to curate a sense of glamour, extravagance and sophistication. Triangles, zigzags and chevrons are among Art Deco’s most distinguishing features.

Dorset House – a popular Art Deco apartment building in Marylebone


What is Modernism? 

In effect, Modernism is the streamlined evolution of Art Deco. It emerged from The Great Depression in the 1930s and 1940s when hard times saw a shift away from flashiness. Although we mainly associate the term with the post-war period of the 1950s and 60s, you can find earlier examples of Modernism that show its evolution from – and obvious roots in – Art Deco style.

Modernism was a deliberate departure from what was then seen as the gaudy stylings of the earlier decade. The movement championed functional design and paired it with new-age materials such as concrete, glass and steel. These were incorporated into revolutionary interior layouts with open floor plans and clean lines in a sharp break with convention.

Alexandra Road Estate, Rowley Way, South Hampstead, London brutalist modernist architecture
Rowley Way in South Hampstead – one of London’s most iconic modernist estates


Art Deco Architecture

The world’s most famous Art Deco icons are the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in New York City. But London also has many fine examples, including Battersea Power Station, the Oxo Tower and numerous apartment buildings that evoke the era of Agatha Christie and Poirot. One of those is Dorset House in Marylebone, which has all the identifying features of the Art Deco movement and where we currently have an apartment for sale.

Art Deco vs Modernism - the art deco reception of Dorset House, Marylebone
Common areas of Dorset House

Notice the geometric patterns of curves and grids using a palette rich with decoration. Beautiful metals, including steel and brass, are instantly recognisable as Art Deco.

Art deco vs modernism - the art deco details of the main entrance at Dorset House in Marylebone
Art Deco details at Dorset House


Modernism Architecture

There’s no better way to encapsulate the term Modernism than with the phrase: ‘less is more’. While keeping the geometric forms of art deco, it dispenses with ornament in favour of function, ably demonstrated at the Isokon in Hampstead. This was Britain’s first modernist apartment building and pioneered the concept of stylish city living. 

Art Deco vs Modernism - The Isokon Building, Lawn Road, Hampstead nw3
The Isokon Building, Hampstead – Picture credit:


Another excellent example is High & Over, also currently for sale. Widely believed to be the first modernist house built in the UK, this dazzling white gem has been the subject of painstaking restoration by its current owners after being split into two for much of its life. The house caused quite a stir when it turned up in suburban Amersham in 1931, but has since become an internationally acclaimed slice of modernist architecture.

Modernist house for sale near London
High & Over in Amersham, Buckinghamshire

Modernism has continued to evolve and mature. Today it’s the foundation of modern property design with open-plan kitchens, white walls, and floors of laid timber or poured concrete. It’s very much a background to encourage our individual style, rather than forcing one upon us.


Art Deco vs Modernism – which side are you on?

To sum up the debate (and as an architect might – and most probably has – put it): the Modernist movement places significance on the form of space, rather than on ornament as Art Deco does. Which is your favourite?

Click here to see our latest modernist and deco homes for sale.


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