Decorative Art
Definition, Meaning, History: Crafts.

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For an explanation of the
aesthetic issues surrounding
visual arts and crafts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

For important dates in the
development of fine art and
other artforms, see:
History of Art.

Decorative Art: Definition & Meaning

The term "decorative arts" is a traditional term for a rather unwieldy range of artistic disciplines concerned with the design and ornamentation of items, usually functional, that do not necessarily have any intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Broadly-speaking, many decorative arts (eg. basket-weaving, cabinet-making, ceramics, tapestry and others) are also classified as "crafts." Also, decorative art is part of the larger category of applied art.

What Does Decorative Art Include?

The definition and category of decorative art includes the creation of furniture and accessory furnishings, rugs and carpets, tapestry, embroidery (see, for instance, the Bayeux Tapestry - actually an embroidery), book illustration, floral decorations, ceramic pottery (earthenware, stoneware, porcelain and raku), basketry, goldsmithing, enamelwork, silverware, and jewellery art (including cloisonné and champlevé techniques) and mosaic art, as well as stained glass and interior designwork. It also embraces theatrical sets and costumes, as illustrated by the fabulous designs made by Leon Bakst for Sergei Diaghilev and his Russian ballet company. Chinese lacquerware and jade carving, are leading exemplars from Asia, as is Chinese porcelain - notably Ming ware - and Japanese Origami paper-folding. Decorative art also embraces just about any category of "precious or crafted object." This would include items such as Fabergé Easter Eggs, precious armour and weaponry and mantelpieces (eg. those incorporating marble and mosaic), as well as theatrical sets, backdrops and costumes, such as those created by Alexander Benois (1870-1960) and Leon Bakst (1866-1924) for the Ballets Russes.

For artworks made out of
salvaged materials, see:
Junk Art.
For painting/sculpture made
by artists outside mainstream,
see: Outsider Art.
For works by mental patients
see: Art Brut.

For Irish creative practitioners,
see: Visual Artists Ireland.
For the leading Irish decorative
arts body, please see:
Crafts Council of Ireland.
For an active artist group, see:
West Cork Craft Design Guild.

Nails sculpted with Fruit Sculptures - a beautiful example of nail art.

Difference Between Decorative Arts and Fine Arts?

Fine art, that is painting, drawing, sculpture and photography, typically has no other function than to be looked at. In contrast, decorative art is often (but not always) utilitarian. Another difference is that fine art tends to be significantly more drawing-based, while decorative arts tend to be more technique-based. But there are exceptions to both these general rules.

Problems of Definition

The exact meaning of "decorative arts" is less important today, now that the narrow, elitist concept of fine art has been superceded by the wider classification of visual art. Furthermore, several modern forms of decorative work involving interior/fashion design, graphics, or computers, are known as "design" disciplines rather than decorative art. Thus the latter term is likely to gradually fade away, especially since it is so closely aligned with categories like "applied art" and "craft". (See also: Types of Art.)

Origins and History of Decorative Art

The earliest type of decorative art was ancient pottery, notably the Jomon style Japanese ceramics pioneered from about 14,500 BCE. It was also widely produced from about 5,000 BCE by a number of ancient Mediterranean civilizations, before reaching its apogee in the Geometric Style, Oriental Style, Black-Figure and Red-Figure style of Ancient Greek pottery.

Another early producer of decorative art were the Celts, whose metalwork (c.500-50 BCE) created such personal weaponry and items of jewellery, as the gold and bronze "Oak Tree of Manching" (c.350-50 BCE), the bronze "Battersea Shield" (c.350-50 BCE), the bronze "Witham Shield" (4th century BCE), the silver "Gundestrup Cauldron" (c.100 BCE), the bronze "Petrie Crown" (100 BCE - 200 CE), the gold "Broighter Gold Collar" (1st century BCE) and the gold "Broighter Boat" (1st century BCE). Later, Celtic artisans in Ireland produced a number of exquisite ecclesiastical objects, and other works, such as the Tara Brooch (c.700 CE), the Ardagh Chalice (8th/9th century CE), the Derrynaflan Chalice (8th/9th century CE), the Moylough Belt Shrine (8th century CE), the Tully Lough Cross (8th/9th century) and the Cross of Cong (12th century).

These ornamental traditions were kept alive at the European royal courts of King Charlemagne I and later Ottonian rulers, with new art forms being developed in the area of tapestry and other textiles. The great Christian Gothic style building program then financed the development of European stained glass art, which it employed throughout its cathedrals in France, England, Germany and elsewhere.


During the Italian and Northern Renaissance eras, painting and sculpture took tended to be more serious than decorative - but see the Fontainebleau School in France - and it wasn't really until the Counter-Reformation Baroque era that decorative art again blossomed, in a variety of disciplines. An important event during this time was the founding of the famous Gobelins Tapestry Factory, in Paris (1667), headed by Charles Le Brun (1619-90), and the Beauvais Tapestry Factory (1664), also in Paris.

After this, came the Rococo school which gave a huge impetus to decorative crafts such as furniture-making, domestic furnishings, glass, and textiles. If Baroque was rooted in architecture, the Rococo style was rooted in interior design. Emerging at the court of Louis XV at the Palace of Versailles, the style proved exceptionally popular in parts of Germany and central Europe. For more, see French Decorative Arts (c.1640-1792); French Designers (c.1640-1792); and French Furniture (c.1640-1792). The Rococo era is also noted for the popularity of Chinese decorative motifs, as in chinoiserie, the pseudo-Chinese style of decoration which spread throughout Europe.

Neither the socialism of the French Revolution or the mass-production techniques of the Industrial Revolution, were conducive to the aesthetics of ornamental crafts. As a result, it wasn't until the late 19th century, in a reaction against machine-based products, that decorative art again came to the fore. It did so due to William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, a social and aesthetic movement which arose out of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society founded in 1888, although its roots date from the 1850s and the aesthetics of the art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). The movement championed good design and craftsmanship, in contrast to the standardized designs of machine-made factory products.

Around the turn of the century another design movement appeared, known as the Celtic Art Revival Movement. Pioneered by members of the Irish intelligentsia, like WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, as well as activists like "AE" Russell, Percy French, Oliver St John Gogarty, Padraic Colum, and Edward Plunkett, it led to a mini-renaissance of Celtic designs and Celtic art generally. Celtic-style jewellers and metalworkers began copying ancient pieces including: the Tara Brooch, the Knights of Templar Brooch, the Dublin University Brooch and the Clarendon Brooch.

Meanwhile, advances in chromolithography in Paris by the French lithographer Jules Cheret (1836-1932) led to a huge poster art craze across Europe. This merged during the 1890s with the first modern international design style, namely Art Nouveau (popularized by groups like the Vienna Secession) which peaked at the 1900 International Exhibition in Paris. Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) epitomized Art Nouveau posters. Then, as Art Nouveau began to lose its edge, it was superceded in poster lithography by functionalism, as exemplified by Leonetto Cappiello (1875-1942). (For more information about this medium, see: History of Poster Art.) After World War I came the highly influential Bauhaus Design School, and afterwards the last major decorative movement emerged, known as Art Deco. This style took its name from the 1925 International Exhibition of Decorative and Applied Arts, in Paris. Since then there have been very few significant new styles of decorative art, although Pop art and Minimalism had some influence, as did Neo-Pop. During the 1970s, in America, the Feminist art movement came out strongly in favour of traditional female-inspired decorative crafts, including needlework, embroidery, glass art and ceramics. See, for instance, "The Dinner Party" (1979, Brooklyn Museum, New York), by Judy Chicago (b.1939), which championed these skills.

Museum Collections of Decorative Art

One of the world's greatest collections of this type of artwork in America can be seen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In Europe, the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum are the greatest showcases of decorative art.

American works at the Met, dating from the late 17th century to the early 20th century, include some 12,000 examples of furniture, silver, glass, pewter, ceramics, and textiles. Among them is an outstanding collection of American stained glass, featuring the innovative work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Other highlights include outstanding examples of plastic art, like blown- and pressed-glass vessels, created by the New England Glass Company, the Dorflinger Works, and Tiffany Studios; valuable furniture dating up to 1820; a range of ceramic and silver objects from the late 19th century, including work designed by Paul Revere. The ceramics collection features a wide variety of materials, methods and manufacturers, from Pennsylvania-German redware to Rookwood Pottery. The Met's textile collection features over 100 quilts, 18th and early 19th-century needlework, as well as fabrics designed by Candace Wheeler, America's finest female textile and interior designer of the period.

• For more about the meaning of art terms, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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