Modern architecture is more about a change in the way humans looked at life and the technological innovations of the 1930s. Technology made it possible for Charles Lindbergh to fly solo across the Atlantic, the radio was changing the speed and way Americans obtained information, and entertainment was to be found at the local cinema with new Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. Wheaties were the new breakfast food. DDT controlled agricultural pests. All things were possible and despite the Depression, most Americans believed that new, scientific solutions were the answer to their every need. New materials were being used for automobiles and airplanes, so it was a natural extension that these materials would be incorporated into cutting edge architecture.
No wonder then that all this dynamic change fostered the development of the modern art movement and dramatic changes in architecture. Art Deco and its immediate successor, Art Moderne, were two of the fresh architectural styles that emerged from 1920 to 1940.
Art Deco was a style of ornamentation using low-relief stylized graphics and applied motifs ranging from florals to geometrics and preceded the Art Moderne style. Buildings were often distinguished by pronounced ascending vertical elements and stepped roof lines. the Between the setback styling of many skyscrapers and and generously applied ornamentation, the resulting style was often referred to as "Wedding Cake" style.
By contrast, Art Moderne buildings are asymmetrical and essentially cubic, often with rounded corners. The effect was streamlined like many of the industrial designs of the 1930s. Often two walls meet in a curve rather than a squared corner. Walls were typically white stucco with a flat finish. Decorative detail was minimized, relying instead on strong horizontal elements like metal banding and coping at the roof line and clean metal balustrades to impart fresh, contemporary character. Unlike Art Deco, Moderne is simple, unadorned, and horizontal.
Windows, frequently using glass block, wrapped around the curve. Alternately, windows at corners met with minimal framing to create an illusion of a window-wrapped corner. New window styles emphasized horizontal lines by stacking rectangular lights in a metal sash.
Art Moderne architecture, though never a dominant style, is found scattered around the country with a larger number of good examples in California and Florida. Art Deco was almost exclusively limited to commercial structures and apartment buildings; very few Deco residences exist.
For examples of Art Deco and Moderne architecture, visit New York Art Deco and Moderne Architecture for a collection of images, some of which are vintage NYC postcards.
Art Deco House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book by Ingrid Cranfield
Moderne: Fashioning the French Interior by Sarah Schleuning