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Artist Sharon Koskoff has always been an evangelist for Art Deco style. Now, she’s written a book.
By Gary Schwan   - 07/01/2007

Palm Beach Post

More Info on This Book: Art Deco of the Palm Beaches

Miami Beach may have its famed Art Deco District, but Palm Beach can boast "The House of the Future."

OK, so the "future" actually began in 1939. That's when an Art Deco residence designed by Palm Beach architect Belford Shoumate earned the title at the New York World's Fair. The house still stands at 1221 N. Lake Way - a lonely example of Deco design in a sea of Mediterranean Revival mansions.

But are Art Deco buildings really all that lonely in Palm Beach and Martin counties?

There are more of them than you might realize. It's just that examples of the early 20th-century style and its many variations aren't concentrated in one area, as is the case with Miami Beach. Rather, they are scattered from Boca Raton to Stuart, according to Sharon Koskoff, author of the new book Art Deco of the Palm Beaches.

Well, maybe not Boca Raton, which is Addison Mizner country. "There aren't any Deco buildings there," Koskoff said flatly, and you can bet she has looked. "If something was built in Boca in the 1920s, it was in Mizner's Mediterranean Revival style."

Her paperback book, loaded with photographs, has just been published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its Images of America series.

Koskoff has been scoping out Art Deco structures since moving to Delray Beach in 1985. "It's a bit of an obsession," she laughed.

A professional artist, she's also founder and president of the Art Deco Society of the Palm Beaches. The nonprofit group has some 100 members, and sponsors lectures, walking tours and, yes, an annual bus trip to Miami Beach.

She estimates identifying "several hundred" Deco-inspired buildings in our area. And she's still looking.

But what is Art Deco?

The name derives from the title of a big exhibition of the decorative arts and industrial design held in Paris in 1925. The show made an impression on many artists and architects, ranging from the stage designer Erte to the architect Le Corbusier.

The style thrived in the 1920s and '30s. Inspired by the machine age, Art Deco featured streamlined forms and geometric patterns. Its influence can be found in something as big as New York's Chrysler Building or as small as a cocktail shaker.

Art Deco had a cousin in Art Moderne, which emphasized mass over decoration. Both styles were a reaction to the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau movement, which was marked by delicate curving lines and shapes derived from nature.

"You could say that Art Nouveau was feminine, and Art Deco was masculine," Koskoff said.

If not born to write this book, Koskoff has been trending that way since she was a teenager in her native Brooklyn.

"I painted my first mural when I was 14, and it was full of geometric shapes," she recalled. "I didn't realize until later that this kind of design was actually Deco-ish."

Later, she worked as a needlepoint designer for a craft company. "I always did these geometric shapes. I was the Art Deco Lady. In another life, I must have been an ancient Egyptian," referring to a civilization that also favored stylized forms.

Koskoff joined New York's Art Deco Society, but it wasn't until she moved to Delray Beach in 1985 that her passion became practically a profession. And Miami Beach was the catalyst.

Someone directed her to South Beach and the late Barbara Capitman, who was the force behind the preservation of Miami Beach's Art Deco buildings.”

Barbara would always say, 'When you start a new painting, you don't paint over a Picasso canvas.' That means don't let new development tear down historic buildings. That's really the book's message."

Koskoff said she was the first to insist that the Armory Art Center building in West Palm Beach was a Deco structure worth preserving. "People said, 'No way. Deco is in Miami Beach.' But they changed their minds."

She mourns the loss of some buildings, such as the former Elephant's Ear antique shop that was on South Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach. Demolished in the 1990s, it is now a seniors' residence parking lot.

Capitman encouraged Koskoff to form her own Deco society. "Barbara wanted me to do Fort Lauderdale, too. To this day, no one has documented Art Deco there."

The Palm Beaches have kept her busy enough.

"Sharon's heart is so into Art Deco," said Amy Clyman, the society's board secretary. "She's very bright and very knowledgeable, and helping to preserve Art Deco architecture is what she loves. Every time I hear her speak, I learn something. But in a fun way."

Koskoff takes an expansive view of what constitutes Art Deco. "I prefer to call it 'modernism,' " she said. "There were many different variations." Some buildings are more fanciful and elaborate than sleek and stylized but may have one or two Deco touches.

She sometimes finds Deco in surprising places, such as the light fixtures in the Norton Museum of Art's auditorium. "They were wise to keep them" when renovating the building in the 1990s, she said.

Her book also cites the two bronze sculptures of Actaeon and Diana by Paul Manship that have been part of the Norton Museum of Art's east facade since the showplace opened in 1941.

"They are our shining examples of Art Deco," she said. "People watch The Today Show, and see the Manship Prometheus sculpture in Rockefeller Center. Well, we have our own first-rate works right here."

Lake Worth features the area's largest concentration of Art Deco buildings, both residential and commercial, she said, speculating that it may be because the city has one of the area's earliest developed downtowns, a good deal of which remains undisturbed.

In South Florida, Art Deco's popularity may have been partly due to the fact that it was economical. "These are minimal structures, relatively simple to build," she said.

She had some surprises researching the book. For example, for years she had been telling people that a certain building on Australian Avenue in Palm Beach had been demolished. Turns out it still exists as a multi-family dwelling. She had been looking at the wrong address.

Oops. Another "oops," she admits, was forgetting to mention in her book the two sculptures of panthers outside the Society of the Four Arts' library in Palm Beach.

But then, her project is ongoing, and books can be updated. "I'm constantly looking for buildings," she said. "And finding them."

Buy It Now: Art Deco of the Palm Beaches $21.99

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