“So you’re a London cab driver, Steve?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Cool. And what do you do for fun?
“I collect 1930’s art deco items.”

What a fascinating contradiction, huh? A London cab driver, as blue collar and as Cockney as they come, collecting 1930s art deco curios! But that’s part of the fun of travel – seeing new places and meeting new people that defy expectations. My conversations with Steve, with whom I ended up traveling for 4 weeks in Turkey, got me curious about this whole art deco thing. What is it, when did it start, and why is it that a place like South Beach Miami, here in the States, has over 900 art deco buildings dotting its streets? As it turns out, the background of art deco is a fairly long story – longer than I have space for in this post. Suffice it to say that it started in Paris in the 20s and 30s and reflected a post-WWI optimism. Graphic artists and architects of the time strove to turn familiar objects of the time (clocks, flatware, furniture, etc.) into pieces of flair without compromising function, while at the same time expressing their adoration for an increasingly mechanized age.

What makes South Beach Miami such a fascinating place (apart from the beach, bars and night life) is the preponderance of art deco buildings – bright and pastel in the daytime, glitzy and neon when the lights go down. As one art critic describes the hotels in the neighborhood:

“[Consider] the Colony Hotel, designed by Hohauser on Ocean in 1935, which adds a neon blue glow to the South Beach night from its inverted T-shaped marquee. Or look a few blocks north to the Leslie, a c.1939 Anis creation bearing other district hallmarks like eyebrow-like window awnings and a tripartite facade with a stylized, attention-grabbing center panel. Meanwhile, Essex House (Hohasuer, c.1938) has a look reminiscent of an approaching steam locomotive from its corner residence along Collins — fitting, given Streamline Moderne’s broad applications to train design during this period.” (The Pastel Perfection of Miami Beach Art Deco Architecture)

To be clear, I’m no art historian. But I can certainly appreciate the clean, modern lines of the art deco style, the buildings that look like trains or boats, the soft cozy pastels and beiges that make up the color palette of the era. Elegant South Beach Miami is a lovely place to explore, particularly at night when the full-blown neon effect expresses itself. The entire area is a 1930s dream come true – in often stark contrast to the extroverted panache of the beach-side party scene. I suspect Steve would like the place – although he might just prefer an art deco coffee pot.

(The world is such a contradictory place, isn’t it? A quaint art deco town like South Beach might also be the epicenter of spring-break shenanigans. A stately city like Bath, England, might also host an insane comedy walking tour (Wow place #72). A historical Indian town like Aurangabad, known for its majestic ruins, might also host a mini Taj Mahal (Wow place #150). And people are the same as well. A Cockney cab driver (like Steve) could be an art connoisseur. A punk rocker like John Joseph, lead singer of the Cro-Mags, might also be an ironman/vegan activist. The long of the short of it is, wherever you go and whomever you meet, look under the surface. Chances are there are more to things than you could ever imagine.)