Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Art is often thought of as paintings or sculptures, but there is another significant aspect of art history that deserves our attention: decorative arts. Unlike fine art, decorative arts focus on the design element and the functionality of the product. In this article, we’ll explore the captivating history of decorative arts and discover how it has evolved over time.

Distinguishing Decorative Art from Fine Art

Both fine art and decorative art share a common value: aesthetics. However, while fine art mainly emphasizes the beauty of the artwork itself, decorative arts also take into account the functions of the product. The National Museum of Art in London explains that the mission of decorative art is to decorate everything, from objects to rooms and buildings. As a result, decorative arts encompass a wide range of genres, including ceramics, jewelry, weapons, textiles, glassware, and furniture.

The History of Formation and Development

Decorative art exhibition

Decorative arts have been an integral part of human history since ancient times. In Japan, prehistoric artisans began crafting pottery as early as 14,000 B.C. These early clay products were small, round-bottomed vessels adorned with decorative patterns, resembling cauldrons used for cooking. Today, these are considered to be the earliest records of pottery.

“Jar with cord marks”, 1000 BC

During the Celtic period, metals like gold and copper were frequently used in the design of jewelry and weapons. This tradition originated in Irish prehistory and reached its peak between 400 B.C. and 100 A.D. Some remarkable examples include the gold bracelet known as the “Wider neck” and the Pagan silver pot called the “Gundestrup Cauldron.”

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“Gundestrup Cauldron”, 200 BC and 300 AD

Textile art flourished in Europe during the Middle Ages. The French tapestry known as “The Lady and the Unicorn” and the Norman’s Bayeux Tapestry are iconic works from this period. Other decorative arts also emerged during the Middle Ages, such as the gilding of manuscripts, stained glass art, and intricate inlays.

“The Lady and the Unicorn”, c. 1500

In the Ming Dynasty, pottery-making techniques in China underwent significant advancements. Artisans were able to utilize vibrant colors, complex motifs, and various shapes. The most groundbreaking innovation of the time was the glazing technique using cobalt dyes, resulting in iconic blue and white porcelain vases.

Ming dynasty vase, ca. 1640-1650

The 18th century in France witnessed the dominance of Rococo decorative art. The lavish lampposts and exquisitely glazed cabinets of the era epitomized Rococo’s inspiration: asymmetry and natural dramatic flair.

Wall Sconce, 1745-1749

During the same period, another fascinating type of decorative art emerged: Fabergé eggs. These jewel-encrusted eggs, originating from the 1885 prototype, were specially designed for royalty. The intricate treasures hidden within the ornate eggshells dazzled the beholders.

“Faberge Egg”

Following that era, European and American craftsmen shifted towards minimalist styles. Various minimalist art movements, such as the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco, emerged. Each movement had its own distinctive visual characteristics, but they all shared one important aspect: ingenuity, the essence of decorative art.

“Strawberry Thief”, designed in 1883, printed in 1934

Contemporary Art Deco

Today, while most decorative products are mass-produced, there is a growing desire among contemporary artisans to preserve and elevate craft art. Textile artists, in particular, have revitalized traditional crafts like sewing and embroidery.

Rainbow Night Light, Magikarpet Linear

In the 21st century, artists are finding ways to infuse contemporary techniques and styles into their craft, further emphasizing its value. Ulla Stina-Wikander, for instance, combines cross-stitch with modern techniques in her work. As a feminist, she designs items specifically for housewives, while also embracing recycling. Stina-Wikander’s reinvention of the cross-stitch technique gives it a fresh and unique look.

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Whether it’s ancient pottery, medieval tapestries, or modern craft art, decorative arts have captivated us throughout history. They continue to inspire and showcase the beauty and functionality that intertwine to create extraordinary objects.

To learn more about the fascinating world of decorative arts, visit Caravansarai for further exploration.