Next time you’re in Manhattan, head to Midtown and look up to the monstrosity that is the Empire State Building. For nearly four decades, this mass of metal, brick and limestone reigned supreme as the tallest building in the United States.
Still an iconic structure, the Empire State Building was one of the most notable historic pieces of architecture constructed in the 1930s. This was a decade where metalwork created memorable trends, shifts in the industry and changes that would pave the way for the rest of the century. Below, we’ll discuss how metalwork influenced interior design, architecture and various machinery developments. This is a continuation of our ongoing series, which started with Metalwork in the 1920s.
1930s trends and developments
The 1930s lent itself to many cultural, societal and economic changes, but none bigger than the Great Depression. The effects were widespread, as issues with the economy affected a wide gamut of industries.
The dip in the economy sent shockwaves through the machine industry. The Machine Tool Show, a national trade exposition that showcased hundreds of operating machines, was postponed twice until 1935.
That didn’t stop advancements in machinery as it relates to metalwork. Leighton Wilkie, a well-known tool manufacturer, developed the contour band saw for metal cutting in 1933. The machine became an industry standard for reducing labor associated with cutting steel.
Automatic welding machines were popular during the 1930s. They were instrumental in steel construction and the fabrication of building floors. Innovation in welding grew alongside transportation advancements to help build submarines, automobiles and ships. For automobiles, Ford created, in 1932, its version of the V-8 engine, which featured many uses of steel. Later in the decade, General Motors came out with an all-steel body design for its 1937 line of automobiles.
Metalwork helped shape the food industry, too. Stoelting, a company that specializes in food equipment manufacturing, built ice cream machines for Homemade Ice Cream Co., which later became Dairy Queen.
Metalwork in interior design
At Coco Architectural, we enjoyed success in the 1920s and 1930s with the launch of a brass shower door that found its way to upscale houses and boutique-style hotels in New York City.
This movement was part of a broader continuation of Art Deco. This style first appeared before World War I, but its grip on interior design remained strong during the 1930s. Best defined as simple, symmetrical and geometric designs, Art Deco made for popular uses of stainless steel and chrome. This included lights and fixtures.
It even translated to the use of steel in the kitchen. Steel kitchens and cabinets were more prominent as part of an overall movement. Women spent more time in the kitchen as traditional assistance decreased. It’s why many of the interior design elements we find today showed up in kitchen layouts. This came out of necessity.
Many kitchens didn’t have built-in storage or cabinets. However, the depression created a problem with prices, so steel kitchens didn’t completely take off until after World War II. Today, stainless steel countertops are common, as are other uses of custom metalwork in kitchens and bathrooms.
Metalwork in architectural design
A variety of metals played a large role in several notable pieces of architecture that are still known today. As mentioned above, the Empire State Building was the biggest project of the decade. Inside, a ceiling mural in the main lobby featured aluminum and 23-karat gold. The original construction used 730 tons of aluminum and stainless steel.
On the opposite side of the country, nickel and stainless steel made up portions of the construction process for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Stainless steel, thanks to its low maintenance, made sense for doors and steel gates, like the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington, D.C.
Architects used nickel, silver, monel, stainless steel and aluminum as design elements. Others used brass inside, like for wall trim at the Hotel Edison in New York City. Brass is still popular today, especially for bathroom finishes like knobs and faucet handles.
Nickel copper alloys, like monel, became popular for metal gates and offered hardness and durability in roofs, plumbing and decorative details. Monel steel debuted in the 1930s but it wasn’t cheap, which didn’t bode well for the Depression era. By the 1940s, stainless steel and aluminum became more popular, cost-effective options.
Aluminium, the material used for the lamp at the U.S. Custom House in Philadelphia, became more popular for exterior uses thanks to weather-resistant properties. It was a prominent interior choice for public and commercial buildings. Architects featured aluminum for the Union Terminal roof in Cincinnati and at the U.S. Department of Justice building.
Additionally, nickel silver was prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. Nickel silver is sometimes called white brass due to its combination of copper, nickel and zinc. White metals were more common thanks to the rise of Art Deco, Depression Modern, Streamline Modern and International Styles.
In the 1930s, Revere Copper and Brass Company debuted lead-coated copper. The Philip Schuyler Mansion in Albany, New York, used an early application of this. The material is first dipped in lead-tin and pure lead and then rolled.
Many of these trends and metal uses exist today, so contact us if you’re feeling inspired to start a custom metal grille project of your own. We offer linear bar grilles, perforated metal grilles or custom metal products, and we’re eager to help you find the perfect solution for your project. Download our product catalog or request a quote for more information.