Decorative Arts: Definition and History

The decorative arts are the way in which artistic activities such as the creation of crafts or art objects, that fulfil the function of decorating, but at the same time have a functional utility. Examples of this can be furniture, chandeliers, windows with art works on their surface and decorated mosaics among many other examples.

All these works are generally of industrial or artisanal production, but always with the aim of looking aesthetic. This type of art is often called “minor arts” as opposed to major/high arts or fine arts.

The most popular decorative arts are ceramics, jewellery, mosaic, cabinetmaking, goldsmith, glyphic, enamel, inlay, metalwork, textiles, upholstery, chloroplast or glass. Graphic arts, such as engraving and many works of architecture, painting and sculpture created for ornamental purposes and as individual works, are also considered decorative arts.

What better than to summarise the definition of the decorative arts with the perspective of the National Gallery of Art in London, which says “The main function of the decorative arts is to embellish something more than themselves: an object, a room, the facade of a building, etc”. 

Decorative Arts in the Prehistoric Era

If we have to talk about the history of decorative arts, we must go back to prehistory. There are records from the year, 14000 BC that show that ceramics already existed in Japan. These are possibly the oldest ceramic pots in existence, and researchers believe they were used for cooking over fire. Also, cardinal ceramics stood out in several areas of Europe, this refers to ceramic pieces decorated with shells.

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The beginning of the Decoration with Metals

With the Neolithic, the Age of Metals began, where man began to use iron, bronze and copper for his tools and weapons. Bronze metallurgy arose in Anatolia, spread through Crete and Cyprus, and then throughout Europe.

The Celts stood out for creating their weapons and jewellery with gold and bronze. These artistic techniques had their splendour between 400 and 100 BC.

The evolution of Decoration and the Egyptians

The Egyptians were among the first human civilisations to create highly complex artistic pieces. The pieces created by Egyptian artists clearly demonstrated the need for specialisation and professionalism of the artist. Emblematic pieces of Egyptian culture are such as the jewels that appeared in the tomb of Tutankhamun, especially his famous funerary mask.

Medieval Decorative Arts

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In the medieval era, in Europe, textile art was of great importance. Pieces of historical and artistic importance such as the Bayeux tapestry remained from those years. In the same historical period, disciplines such as illustrated manuscripts, stained-glass windows and mosaics stood out, which also fall within the category that we know today as decorative arts.

Ceramic work was improved and specialised between the years 1368–1644 in China during the well-known Ming Dynasty. The Chinese introduced new firing techniques that made it possible to obtain brighter pieces, in addition to innovating with the use of enamelling with the brilliant cobalt blue pigment.

In France in the 18th century, Rococo art flourished, manifesting itself in objects such as chandeliers and elegant furniture.

Industrialisation and the Decorative Arts

The arrival of the Industrial Revolution, socialism and the French Revolution were historical events that did not benefit the decorative arts due to their tendency towards machine production. However, in the 19th century, aesthetic and social movements emerged, such as the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris, who acted as a counterpart to this trend, defending design and crafts.

Conclusion

In our times, despite the fact that handicrafts and decorative arts are too often still mass-produced, there are tons of artisans and artists who put their hearts into their works and give that unique and distinctive touch to the pieces they create.

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