A friend of mine recently sent me a birthday card, and when I saw the return address, my eyebrows rose. It was in one of the most prestigious parts of town, and as the doting father of three young girls, it seemed unlikely that my friend could afford a house big enough for his family in that particular zip code. I made it a point to arrange a visit with my friend in the hopes that he'd share a portion of his lottery winnings with me, or introduce me to a lucrative sideline.
When I visited, the answer to the mystery became clear. My friend had moved his family into an Art Deco home that had been allowed to go to seed for decades. The combination of neglect and off-beat style had let my friend get an amazing deal on a large house in a desirable location. He'd already restored the interior to livability (just barely), but the exterior needed work. The paint was bad, but the real priority was replacing those Art Deco balcony railings that had rusted through. They were a safety hazard and he wanted to be able to let his daughters play on the balcony. To find just the right railings to suit the style of his house, he spent a lot of time looking at railing project ideas on the internet and learning about the Art Deco period.
What Is Art Deco Style?
Art Deco is a hard style to pin down precisely. It embraced industrial materials and industry itself in a wholly new way, and yet at the same time it hearkened back to the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians for its design cues. It's why you see a lot of Art Deco murals of industrial workers with that flat Egyptian perspective. To add to the confusion, there are actually two types of Art Deco architecture: a square early style possibly best exemplified by the Empire State Building, and a more rounded style called Streamline Moderne that is more like the Chrysler Building.
In residences, Art Deco's focus is more on materials rather than decorations. This usually translates to reinforced concrete walls, trim that looks like it could be lit by neon but seldom is, all topped off with a flat roof. The style makes for distinctive houses that most people admire, but not all people want to live in. On the other hand, those that do like this style tend to love it.
But Art Deco lovers do have a problem. A lot of the Art Deco homes today have been ignored for decades, and they have a lot to fix. Since they're also uncommon, there isn't much in the way of reclaimed trim pieces or other materials to use during renovation. That means that if you're like my friend and you buy one of these classic homes, you can end up with a lot of expensive custom work to do on balconies and light fixtures. However, it is possible to find railings that fit in with the Art Deco style even if they're not historically accurate.
Art Deco Balcony Railings for the Modern World
If you have a home that dates back to the early form of Art Deco architecture, or that follows that form, then finding a railing system that looks good on your home won't be hard. Your likeliest bet is to choose a railing panel of either steel or aluminum and add an ornamental top rail of repeating circles or another simple geometric design. This suits the bold, clean lines of squared Art Deco homes. If, on the other hand, your home is a later style such as Streamline Moderne, things are more challenging.
This is because these homes featured lots of curved corners, and chances are, if your Streamline Moderne home has a porch, deck, or balcony, it's curved in some way. Trying to match these curves with a modular railing system requires some planning. In the case of a gentle curve, it's possible to still use modular, pre-assembled railing panels and simply approximate the curve. In other cases, you may have to curve top and bottom rails, and then install individual balusters. In any case, these are the railing materials that will work best with a Streamline Art Deco home:
- Glass railings use glass instead of balusters, either in the form of full panels or glass balusters. To match a curve, I would recommend going with glass balusters. To fit a curve, you'll likely be cutting some of your railing panels short, and smaller individual pieces of glass as balusters do away with the need to cut a glass panel to fit a shortened railing section.
- Cable railings replace balusters with tautly stretched stainless steel cables, and, like glass railings, they have a minimal profile which suits the Art Deco style and also makes them good railings for a view. Cable also has an industrial aesthetic that I imagine Art Deco designers would have embraced in their architecture had cable-style railings been common in the 1930s.
- Curved railings match the curve of an Art Deco balcony or porch because their top and bottom rails are curved so they fit where they are placed without any approximating. Their disadvantage is creating curved rails requires special skills, and, if the rails are hollow metal, special machine tools to curve them without kinking them.
The most economical solution for most homes is going to be a glass or cable railing system. Their minimalism keeps it from being obvious that they don't follow curves, their modern materials complement Art Deco homes, and they're low maintenance railings that are easy to clean and don't need regular repainting or resealing.
Working with the Curves on an Art Deco Home
This may leave homeowners wondering how to deal with a curved corner using a panel railing system. You start by cutting the panels that will go on the corner shorter than the others and creating a polygon of however many sides are needed to match the curve. This will work with relatively open curves. Very tight curves can be treated like a 90-degree corner with a single post.
It's rare, but sometimes an Art Deco home will have a curve that just will not look right with straight railing panels. The curve might be just tight enough that it can't be met without an unsightly crowd of posts, or it will be a small double curve. For these situations, you may have little choice but to create curved railings. In this case, solid steel rails will be cheapest because they don't need too much specialized gear to curve. This will confine your baluster choices to steel, and it means you'll also give up useful features like exterior railing lights. After all, you can't run a wire through top and bottom rails that are solid steel.
Fortunately, for most Art Deco homes it's possible to use a railing system. This was the direction my friend went, and a new, carefully planned cable railing system was a good first step in restoring his home's exterior from a derelict to modern thing of beauty. As a plus, the new exterior details made it easier to find bring in some other new fixtures-like overhead lighting-that didn't look out of place. Brushed stainless steel fixtures are easy to find, and will match the cables of his railings.
The cable railing system I recommend to everyone who will listen to me-including my friend with the Art Deco home-is made by Fortress Railing. Their vertical cable railing system uses marine-grade stainless steel cables-so they won't corrode even in the harshest weather-and it uses internal cable tensioners hidden out of sight. This appearance-enhancing detail keeps idle hands from playing with the tensioners and loosening the cables. To find a dealer or installer of Fortress railings, contact them through their site. For more high-quality, thoughtfully-made products take a look at Fortress Building Products' other offerings, such as decking and fencing.