Decorative Art

from The New Book of Knowledge®


The term "decorative arts" refers to a kind of art that is useful as well as beautiful. Furniture, glassware, ceramics, woodwork, metalwork, and textiles are among the most important decorative arts.

The term "decorative arts" was developed in the 1800's by English and American art historians to distinguish pottery, weaving, woodworking, and similar arts from what they considered the "fine arts," such as painting, sculpture, and architecture. The historians explained that decorative arts had a clear purpose, while fine arts were simply admired for their beauty. This distinction has often led to the fine arts being more valued, or respected, than other types of art. Outside of Europe and the United States, however, most cultures have made no distinction between fine arts and decorative arts; all kinds of art are equally appreciated.

Early Decorative Arts

The oldest surviving pieces of decorative art, made out of wood and bone, date from the Stone Age. They were created for personal adornment, weapons, or tools, and they were typically decorated with animal and human figures.

About 6000 B.C., people in the Middle Eastern region called Mesopotamia changed from a nomadic (wandering) society to a farming society. They began to make tools, textiles, and pottery decorated with scenes of everyday life or with abstract patterns.

Artists soon learned how to hammer copper, gold, and silver into different shapes to make jewelry, goblets, and weapons. The people who lived around the Mediterranean Sea made gold objects decorated with the forms of animals, humans, and plants. Artists in northern Europe used geometric shapes, such as circles, squares, spirals, crosses, and triangles.

As more cultures arose around the world, each developed its own style of decorative art. But neighboring cultures also learned about each other's artistic styles through trade and warfare, so some similarities in style can be found in various regions around the world.

Ancient Egypt

Most of what is known of ancient Egyptian decorative arts comes from tombs. It was usual to provide the person who died with everything he or she might need in the afterlife, including furniture to sit or sleep on, weapons to hunt with, jewelry to wear, and games to play. Tomb walls were often decorated with paintings of the deceased engaged in everyday activities. Because many Egyptian gods were represented as real or imaginary animals, Egyptian decoration is full of snakes, lions, cats, eagles, and sphinxes.

Early Egyptian craftsmen used stone for vessels and many other objects. Some stone vessels had two handles and straps so that they could be hung on the wall. Of the many different kinds of stone used, the blue lapis lazuli was the most prized.

The Egyptians were also skilled at working metal, which they used to make vessels, statues, and jewelry and to decorate furniture. Gold was easily shaped and decorated with raised designs, called reliefs, or designs formed by hammering wire of different metals into the surface. Metal was often combined with stone to make jewelry in the shape of animals. Ivory was also carved and often used with ebony (a hard, black wood). Simple designs of lotus and papyrus plants were used on furniture, tools, and tableware. These plant forms were often combined with human or animal heads. Sometimes the bodies of people had the heads of sacred animals.

Sub-Saharan Africa

As in Egypt, the oldest objects from sub-Saharan (south of the Sahara desert) Africa have been found in graves. Tools, weapons, and ornaments were often made from bones and shells. Large sculptures of gods and rulers were carved from rock. Wood was used for furniture, including special royal stools with seats supported by carved heads. Tools, amulets, bells, and ritual masks were made from bronze and iron. Elephant tusks were carved with battle scenes or bands of braided patterns. Members of the upper class also wore ivory masks carved like human faces. Textiles were woven from raffia, cotton, and imported silk and were decorated with brightly colored geometric and abstract patterns. Basket-weaving, which included mats and wall coverings, was the most widely practiced of all the crafts.

China and Japan

The decorative arts of China and Japan were flowing and graceful because they were closely tied to calligraphy (the art of beautiful writing). Materials such as jade, porcelain, silk, and lacquer, which were unknown in Europe for centuries, were commonly used. Painted decorations focused on nature, with flowers, birds, and mountainous landscapes.

Chinese craftsmen were famous for their mastery of any material they used, such as bronze, jade, ceramics, and silk. Chinese decoration featured several successive styles, including animal forms, plant shapes, and depictions of people. Symbols such as the dragon and phoenix appeared in Chinese art about 2000 B.C.

The earliest and finest bronzes ever made date from the Shang (1523-1000's B.C.) and Zhou (1000's-221 B.C.) dynasties. (A dynasty is a period of time when one family rules.) Vessels for cooking, serving liquids, and holding food each had unique shapes and were decorated with carvings of dragons, snakes, locusts, birds, and imaginary beings. These vessels were cast by a technique called lost wax casting. The original model was made of wax, or clay covered with wax. Then the artist would cover the model with a thick layer of plaster or clay, with several holes in it. The model in its shell was then heated. The wax melted and flowed out through the holes. Next, melted bronze was poured into the shell through the same holes, replacing the wax. When the bronze cooled and hardened, the shell was broken away, and a candlestick, doorknob, or plate had been created.

The Chinese made bells and other musical instruments out of the colorful gemstone jade, which makes a unique sound when struck. Artists of the Shang and Zhou dynasties skillfully carved jade rings, disks, axes, and knives and then polished them to a shine. But the high point of Chinese jade-carving was during the Han dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), when artists carved miniature figurines, ornaments for sashes, and little jade trees with many graceful curves. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), jade was so richly carved it resembled lace.

The Chinese developed a new kind of pottery called porcelain. When porcelain is fired (baked in a kiln), it hardens into a fine, almost transparent, white material. The most famous porcelain was decorated with blue-and-white glazes, as well as with "secret" carved designs that were not visible unless the piece was viewed directly in strong light. Over the centuries the Chinese developed exquisite new shapes in porcelain and painted them with floral designs.

The use of silk, obtained from the cocoon of the silkworm, was a carefully guarded secret among Chinese artisans for many years. This fine material was woven into clothing and tapestries.

Japanese decorative arts were strongly influenced by Chinese art, but the Japanese eventually developed their own unique designs. Japanese ornament is based on a feeling for the harmony of nature and for human beings, carefully placed in compositions. The result is a style that has strongly influenced European art.

The Japanese believed that an object is truly beautiful only when it serves a purpose. They therefore decorated all kinds of objects used in their everyday lives. Artisans created beautiful lacquer (shiny-coated) objects, some featuring imaginary landscapes filled with people and dainty buildings, which were varnished with different colors.

Like the Chinese, the Japanese were highly skilled in ceramics. The development of the tea ceremony encouraged a love of simplicity and ritual, and teacups and pots were made with simple shapes and glazes. Artists introduced colorful designs to porcelain, and even ornamented porcelain with gold and silver. Small decorative figures were made out of ceramics or cast in bronze.

Woodblock printing in Japan was adopted from China in the 700's. This technique was used mostly to reproduce inexpensive religious works. It reached its highest development in the 1700's, when the skills of the designer, woodcutting specialist, and painter combined to create full-color illustrations.


Indian art first arose around places of worship, and it continues to be influenced by some of the country's major religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Symbolic geometric designs decorated some of the earliest shrines and temples. Later, huge stone pillars were heavily decorated with reliefs and three-dimensional carvings of human or animal forms. Baskets, beautifully worked brass bowls, and brightly colored textiles were also created. Jars were carved from wood and decorated with natural scenes, and wood printing blocks were used to decorate vibrantly colored fabrics.

Pre-Columbian Decorative Arts

Pre-Columbian art is the art created by native civilizations in Latin America before the arrival of Columbus and other Europeans beginning in the late 1400's. The Aztecs, Maya, and other civilizations developed arts to serve important religious or political functions. Many decorations show planets, stars, and the sun, which was the symbol of the ruler or emperor. Most Maya temples were crowded with ornaments and relief carvings of figures in ceremonial dress. Gold was worked into jewelry and ritual objects. Fine designs of gold or silver wire were also applied to gold or silver surfaces, a technique called filigree. Textiles and architecture were often decorated with geometric forms and mythological creatures. Paintings on walls and pottery provide an accurate picture of daily life, and large sculptures were carved of gods, chieftains, and priests.

Greece and Rome

The decorative arts of ancient Greece and Rome were very similar. The Romans, who conquered Greece in 148 B.C., chose to model much of their society after Greece and adopted many styles of Greek art. Unlike the highly stylized arts of Asia and Africa, Greek and Roman art was more realistic and closer to nature.

Among the earliest examples of Greek decorative art are paintings on vases. In one technique, called black-figure painting, the subjects were painted on the vase with liquid clay that turned black after firing in a kiln. In another technique, red-figure painting, the backgrounds were painted black and the figures were formed by the areas of red clay left unpainted. These paintings were typically scenes of everyday life or of characters from Greek mythology.

Gold jewelry decorated with filigree was very popular in the Greek and Roman worlds. Vessels were made of iron about the year 600 B.C., but bronze was the favorite material of Greek artisans. Out of bronze they fashioned statues and many useful objects for everyday use, such as weapons, vessels, and medals.

The columns of Greek temples supported decorative panels of relief sculptures, which featured animal or plant-like forms as well as scenes from mythology and battles. Other common types of sculpted ornament included bucrania (an ox skull surrounded by ribbons) and acanthus leaves.

Although no Greek paintings beside those on vases have survived to modern times, many Roman frescoes (paintings made on wet plaster) have been found decorating walls in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Because Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79, houses, furniture, and many examples of decoration were preserved. These included gold bracelets and necklaces, vessels cut out of semi-precious stones, and glassware of many different colors. Rich textiles once hung on walls. The Romans also covered their floors with mosaics, pictures formed by arranging small stones or pieces of enameled glass in cement.

Byzantine Empire

When the Roman Empire split into two sections in A.D. 395, the eastern half was centered on the city of Byzantium (Constantinople) and became the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine art combined many features from the Western and Eastern worlds. The forms were based on shapes found in nature, but Byzantine artists tried to make them into pleasing patterns and designs by flattening them and varying their sizes.

Byzantine monks were masters of enamel work, in which powdered glass is melted to form a hard, shiny surface. A design was made with thin ribbons of gold attached to a gold plate. Each separate area in the design was filled with enamel, and then the piece was baked in a kiln until the enamel and metal joined together. The gold base gleaming through the enamel gave the object a distinctive glow.

Churches were decorated with gold mosaics. Fine gold jewelry with gemstones was also made for wealthy rulers. Brightly colored combs, fans, religious tablets, and book covers were crafted from ivory.

Middle Ages

During Europe's Middle Ages (500-1500), most art was made for rulers or the church and featured bright colors, rich decorations, and stylized forms. Sculptures, paintings, stained-glass windows, and gold reliquaries (containers holding the remains of a Christian saint or martyr) filled major cathedrals. Colorful tapestries, jewelry, clothes, and armor were made for powerful lords and their families.

Monasteries produced a large amount of decorative art. The covers of Bibles and other religious books were decorated with gold, silver, ivory, enamel, and delicately painted leather. The monks painted the pages with brilliantly colored illustrations, some showing scenes of the seasons.

German iron and bronze workers were known for their candlesticks and church doors. Gates and screens for cathedrals were beautifully made, and fancy metal hinges held together the wooden slats of great doors. The hinges often ended in patterns of leaves or flowers.

Stained-glass windows were a distinct feature of the Gothic style of architecture, which developed during the 1100's. The decorative quality of these windows was enhanced by ornate stone supports that divided each window into separate panes. The patterns formed by these supports, called tracery, consisted of arcs and circles combined with shapes from nature. Large windows illustrated stories from the Bible. Tracery patterns were also used on furniture and wall panels and in metalwork.

The Gothic period also brought a greater use of armor decoration. Designs were engraved or etched into the metal. Sometimes the engraved lines were filled with hard black or silver paste to create a bolder pattern.

Fewer religious articles were made toward the end of the Middle Ages. Rich merchants wanted objects for their homes. Vases, handwoven rugs and clothing, and the corners of tables were decorated with the same imaginary animals that appeared on the lord's shields or flags.


The Renaissance ("rebirth"), which began in Italy in the 1400's, was an age of rediscovery. European artists tried to find new ways to express themselves and turned to the arts and ideas of classical Greece and Rome. They studied Greek and Roman ruins, trying to imitate not only the forms but also the materials. The shapes of animals, plants, and people were also studied in an effort to create more natural forms in painted and carved decoration. Churches were no longer built with pointed arches, and their roofs were now supported by columns topped with capitals.

New types of furnishings were developed to satisfy a growing demand for rugs, ceramics, tapestries, glassware, and paintings. One method of decorating wooden furniture was intarsia. Small pieces of wood of different colors were set into the surface to form special patterns or scenic designs such as landscapes. Another method was to create geometric designs by setting little pieces of ivory and bone into the wood. Low wooden chests were decorated with thin fabric, on which a design was built up with a plaster-like paste called gesso. Final details were carved into the gesso, and the piece was gilded (covered with thin gold leaf).

The Italians invented a kind of ceramic decoration called majolica. Majolica pottery was decorated with brilliantly colored scenes from Greek mythology, the Bible, or Italian history. Large majolica plates and vessels were not meant to be used but only displayed and admired.

Gold was engraved or decorated with enamel, and craftsmen rediscovered how to cast gold and bronze with the lost wax method. They also developed new ways of making glassware in all sorts of shapes and colors.

Baroque and Rococo

"Baroque" is the name given to European art of the 1600's and early 1700's that was characterized by ornate designs and curved shapes that gave the impression of motion. Baroque decoration was heavy and dramatic.

Large pieces of furniture such as cabinets and desks were common during this period. The popular form of decoration was marquetry, in which veneers (thin layers) of ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, brass, bronze, tortoiseshell, and different kinds of wood were set onto the wooden panels of furniture to create decorative designs.

The rococo style developed in the early 1700's. Rococo also featured curved shapes to evoke movement, but it had a lighter and more delicate appearance than baroque. Decoration was now swirling and moving, with clouds, garlands, or draperies. Depictions of rocks, shells, scrolls, flowers, fruits, and leaves were used on nearly all the decorative art of the day, as well as on architecture and in painting. Rooms became oval or round, and furniture was curved and swayed. Everything had light gold borders, and angels and cherubs played in smoke and clouds.

During this period, European artists also studied the designs found on Chinese and other Asian silks, furniture, and porcelain. The forms that developed, called chinoiserie, were not copied directly from the Chinese but were combined with European forms. They copied the lacquer style and the light, airy paintings of the Japanese as well. And the secrets of silk and porcelain were finally discovered.

The Industrial Age

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the mid-1700's, was a time of great technological growth throughout Europe and the United States. By the mid-1900's, many objects that were once made by hand were now mass-produced by machines and sold to millions of people. Any object could be decorated in the style of any country or historical period. At first manufacturers of decorative objects tried to copy the appearance of handmade art, but the results were not always very pleasing. However, artisans who made handcrafted objects found it difficult to compete with the speed and low cost of mass production. Mass-produced goods--even though they lacked the quality of earlier decorative art--came to dominate the markets.

Some architects and designers rebelled against these developments. The most prominent was William Morris of England, who with his followers founded the arts and crafts movement to revive craftsmanship and good design. Although many people did not agree with the arts and crafts movement, Morris' ideas slowly began to affect decorative art. Other artists agreed that machine-made products were ugly, but they did not think that art should return to the past. These artists were part of the art nouveau ("new art") movement, which featured a style of flowing, curved lines and flat color patterns. It affected all the arts, from posters to architecture.

Another movement, art deco, also arose about this time. Art deco designers wanted to join art and industry, and they chose materials and forms that could be easily mass produced. Glass, plastic, and chrome were often used, and the designs had a sleek, streamlined look. The style was used for clothing, jewelry, and furniture as well as for household objects such as clocks and teapots.

With the development of the artistic movement called modernism in the early 1900's, many architects and designers argued that the form or shape of an object should be dictated by its function, or what it is supposed to do, and that all kinds of ornament should be avoided. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius believed that the most pleasing object is one that works the best; a teapot is useless if its design makes the tea drip when it is poured. Ornament was extra, and therefore unnecessary. Students at the Bauhaus, a German design school founded by Gropius, dedicated themselves to the development of objects that were practical as well as beautiful.

Modernism also encouraged a new exploration of materials for their own decorative effects. Plastic was molded into useful and pleasing shapes for wastepaper baskets, wall surfaces, and even kitchenware. Steel frames, synthetic textiles, and flexible materials were used to create new kinds of furniture that were both comfortable and light.

Decorative Arts as Design

The term "decorative arts" is rarely used today. Instead, decorative objects are now referred to as "design," because most of them are planned and drawn by designers and then made by machines. The label "design" applies not only to traditional decorative objects such as jewelry and ceramics, but also to coffee makers, computers, and even buildings. In the United States, architects such as Michael Graves have designed furniture and appliances that are mass-produced and sold in department stores. In the 1960's, Swedish designers developed a line of inexpensive but well-designed wood furniture that could be sold in kits and assembled by the consumer.

Today there is perhaps a greater appreciation for handicraft than ever before. African masks, jewelry, and textiles are part of tribal art collections in museums, and contemporary Asian ceramics are highly prized. Whether mass-produced or handmade, everyday objects are appreciated if they have beautiful form, material, or detailing.

Richard W. Ireland
Maryland Institute College of Art
Revised by Isabelle Frank
Editor, The Theory of Decorative Art

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