Decorative Arts


Decorative art is the final kind of three-dimensional art we examine. As you read this text, consider how decorative art is different from other kinds of two- and three-dimensional art we have discussed so far in this course.


Craft requires the specific skilled use of tools in creating works of art. These tools can take many forms: words, construction tools, a camera, a paintbrush, or even a voice. Traditional studio crafts include ceramics, metal and woodworking, weaving, and the glass arts. Crafts are distinguished by a high degree of workmanship and finish. Traditional crafts have their roots in utilitarian purposes: furniture, utensils, and other everyday accouterments designed for specific uses and reflect the adage that "form follows function." But human creativity goes beyond a simple function to include the aesthetic realm, entering through the doors of embellishment, decoration, and an intuitive sense of design.

In the first example below, the smooth, simple lines of a Tulip Chair were designed by Eero Saarinen as an exercise in clarifying form. When it was made, its futuristic use of curved lines and artificial materials was seen as emblematic of the "space age." In another example, a staircase crafted in the Shaker style takes on an elegant form that mirrors the organic spiral shape representing the "golden ratio."

Saarinen Tulpanstolen

Saarinen Tulpanstolen

Shaker style staircase, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Photo by Jack Boucher, National Parks Service

Shaker style staircase, Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. National Parks Service

Utility is not the sole purpose of craft. The Persian carpet below has its use as a utilitarian object, but the craftsmanship shown in its pattern and design gives it a separate aesthetic value. The decorative element is visually stimulating as if the artisan uses the carpet as simply a vehicle for his or her own creative imagination.

Antique Tabriz Persian Carpet

Antique Tabriz Persian carpet

As we have seen in an earlier module, quilts made in the rural community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, show a diverse range of individual patterns within a larger design structure of colorful stripes and blocks and have a basis in graphic textile designs from Africa.

Even a small tobacco bag from the Native American Sioux becomes a work of art with intricate beaded patterns and floral designs.

Sioux tobacco bag

Sioux Tobacco Bag

The craftsmanship in glass making is one of the most demanding. Working with an extremely fragile medium presents unique challenges. Challenges aside, the delicate nature of glass gives it an exceptional visual presence. A blown glass urn dated to first-century Rome is an example. The fact that it has survived the ages intact is a testament to its ultimate strength and beauty.

Cinerary Urn, Roman. C. 1st century CE. Blown glass. National Archaeological Museum, Spain. Photo: Luis Garcia Zaqarbal

Cinerary Urn, Roman. C. 1st century CE, blown glass. National Archaeological Museum, Spain

Louis Comfort Tiffany introduced many styles of decorative glass between the late 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. His stained glass window The Holy City in Baltimore, Maryland, has intricate details in illustrations influenced by the Art Nouveau style popular at the turn of the 19th century.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, 'The Holy City', stained glass window, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland. 1905

The Holy City, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1905, stained glass window, Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland

The artist Dale Chihuly has redefined the traditional craft of glass making over the last 40 years, moving it towards the mainstream of fine art with single objects and large-scale installations involving hundreds of individual pieces.

Product Design

The dictum "form follows function" represents an organic approach to three-dimensional design. The products and devices we use daily continue to serve the same functions but with a change in style. This constant realignment in basic form reflects modern aesthetic considerations and, on a larger scale, becomes artifacts of the popular culture of a given time period.

The two examples below illustrate this idea. Like Tiffany glass, the chair Henry van de Velde designed in 1895 reflects the Art Nouveau style in its wood construction with organic, stylized lines and curvilinear form. In comparison, the Ant Chair from 1952 retains the basic functional form with a more modern design using a triangular leg configuration of tubular steel and a single piece of laminated wood veneer, the cutout shape suggesting the form of a black ant.

Henry van de Velde, Chair, 1895. Wood, woven fiber

Chair, Henry van de Velde, 1895, wood, woven fiber.

Arne Jacobsen, 'Ant Chair', 1952. Steel and wood

Ant Chair, Arne Jacobsen, 1952, steel and wood

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Source: Christopher Gildow,
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Last modified: Wednesday, February 14, 2024, 4:06 PM