Decorative Applied Art

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Decorative Applied Art


a form of decorative art; it embraces a number of branches of art that are devoted to the production of art articles designed mainly to be used in everyday life.

Products of decorative applied art can be various utensils, furniture, textiles, work tools, means of transportation, and clothing and all kinds of ornaments. In addition to classifying works of decorative applied art in keeping with their practical purpose, it has become the practice in scholarly literature since the second half of the 19th century to classify the branches of decorative applied art on the basis of the materials used (metal, ceramics, textiles, wood) or the technique of execution (carving, painting, embroidery, printing on cloth, casting, chasing, intarsia, and so on). This classification is the result of the important role of the designing and technological principles of decorative applied art and its direct ties with production. While solving practical and artistic problems, as does architecture, decorative applied art at the same time belongs to the sphere of creation of material and spiritual values. Products of decorative applied art are inseparable from the material culture of the era in which they are created and have close ties with customs and manners, various local ethnic and national characteristics, and social-group and class distinctions. Since the works of decorative applied art are an inseparable part of the world of objects with which man is in daily contact, their aesthetic qualities, their character, and the images they create constantly affect his mental states and moods and are an important source of emotions that influence his attitude toward the world around him.

While saturating man’s environment aesthetically, works of decorative applied art are at the same time, as it were, absorbed by it, since they are usually apprehended in terms of the environment’s architectural and spatial content and of other objects or sets of objects (dishes, matched furniture, clothing, jewelry sets) that are a part of it. Hence the ideological content of works of decorative applied art can be completely understood only if one has a clear picture (actual or mentally recreated) of the interaction of the object with man and his surroundings.

The architectonics of an object, which depend on the object’s purpose, the possibilities of the design, and the plastic qualities of the material, often play a fundamental role in the creation of an art article. Not infrequently in decorative applied art, the beauty of the material, the proportional relations of the composite parts, and the rhythmic structure are the only means for embodying the emotional and figurative content of the article (for example, undecorated articles made of glass or some other colorless materials). This is when the particular importance for decorative applied art of purely emotional, nonrepresentational means of artistic expression, whose use is evidence of its kinship with architecture, becomes manifest. The emotionally meaningful image is often evoked by the associative image (the comparison of the form of the article with a drop of water, a flower, the figure of a man, an animal, some of its own elements, or some other article such as a bell or a baluster).

The decoration on an article also has an important influence on its figurative structure. Often an object of everyday use becomes a work of decorative applied art precisely because of the way it is decorated. Possessing its own emotional expressiveness and its own rhythm and proportions (often contrasting with its form, as, for instance, in the works of Khokhloma craftsmen wherein the simple modest form of a bowl and the elaborate festive painting on its surface differ in their emotional impact), the decoration both changes the form visually and fuses with it into an integral artistic image. In decorating works of decorative applied art, the craftsman makes wide use of decorative design and of elements of the visual arts (sculpture, painting, and more rarely graphic arts) individually or in the most varied combinations. The means of visual arts and decoration not only help create the design in decorative applied art but at times also affect the shape of the object (furniture parts in the form of palmettos, volutes, animal paws and heads; vessels shaped like a flower, like fruit, the figure of a bird, an animal, a man). Sometimes the ornament or figure become the basis for the form of the article (the pattern in a grating or lace; the design of the weave of a cloth or a rug). The need to coordinate the decorative design with the shape and to coordinate the rendering with the scale and character of the article and with its practical and artistic purpose result in the transformation of the figurative motifs and in a conventional treatment and juxtaposition of the natural elements (for example, in shaping a table leg, the combining of the forms of a lion’s paw, an eagle’s wings, and the head of a swan).

The unity of the artistic and utilitarian functions of an article—the interpenetration of form and ornamentation and of figurative and structural principles—reflects the synthetic character of decorative applied art. The products of decorative applied art are intended to be perceived both visually and through touching. Hence, bringing out the beauty of texture and the plastic properties of the material, the diversity of means used to fashion it, and the skill with which it is wrought acquire importance in decorative applied art as particularly active means of exerting an aesthetic influence.

Having originated in the earliest period in the development of human society, decorative applied art for many centuries was the most important and, for many tribes and peoples, the principal form of artistic expression. The most ancient works of decorative applied art (dating from prehistoric times), which encompassed an extremely wide range of concepts about man and the universe, contained exceptionally meaningful images and were characterized by concern for the aesthetics of the material, for the aesthetics of objects produced by labor, and for the rational construction of form emphasized by the decoration. This tendency has been retained by folk art, which is devoted to tradition, to this day.

As society became stratified, a leading role in the stylistic evolution of decorative applied art began to be played by its special branch, which was called upon to serve the needs of the ruling social classes and be responsive to their tastes and ideology. Gradually, an interest in the richness of material and decoration, in their rarity and refinement, became increasingly important. Articles used to impress and to awe (objects employed in religious rituals and court ceremonies or to decorate the houses of the nobility) came to the fore, and in creating them, in order to increase their emotional impact, the craftsmen often sacrificed the functional relevance of form construction. However, up to the mid-19th century, the masters of decorative applied art preserved the integrity of their creative thinking and the clarity of their concept of aesthetic ties between the object and the environment for which it is intended.

The formation, evolution, and supplanting of artistic styles in decorative applied art occurred simultaneously with their evolution in other forms of art. Eclectic tendencies that developed in the artistic culture of the second half of the 19th century led to the gradual impoverishment of the aesthetic quality and figurative and emotional content of decorative applied art. The bond between decoration and form was lost, and artistic solutions were supplanted by mere adornment. The artists sought to counteract the predominance of tastelessness and the depersonalizing effect of mass machine production on decorative applied art with unique objects produced on the basis of artists’ plans under craft conditions of labor (the workshops of William Morris in Great Britain, the Darmstadt Art Colony in Germany) or under factory conditions (the German Werkbund) and to bring about the renascence of figurative and emotional integrity and ideological content of an artistically meaningful environment. These attempts were developed upon new ideological and aesthetic bases following the Great October Socialist Revolution, which opened up the prospect of creating an artistically meaningful environment in which the masses could work and live. Its ideas and goals inspired the artists who considered art to be one of the effective tools of revolutionary agitation (for example, the so-called agitational porcelain, 1918-25). The task of creating the complex furnishings of a worker’s apartment and of workers’ communal apartments, clubs, and dining rooms, as well as comfortable work clothes and efficient equipment for a working place, designed for mass factory production, opened creative paths to constructivists in the USSR and to functionalists in Germany and other countries, in many ways anticipating the advent of design. The rebirth of the folk cottage industry in the USSR and interest in the Russian artistic heritage during the 1930’s played an important role in the assimilation of the best technological and artistic traditions of the past by Soviet masters of decorative applied art. However, the approach to works of decorative applied art from the standpoint of easel art and the pursuit of showy effects, which were particularly strongly felt in the years immediately following the Great Patriotic War, noticeably held back the development of decorative applied art.

Since the mid-1950’s in the USSR, along with the search for functional and artistically expressive forms and decorations of objects of everyday use produced by the factory method, the artists are busy creating unique works, in which the emotional content of the image is combined with many different ways of treating the simplest materials and with an attempt to bring out the wealth of the materials’ plastic and decorative potentialities. Such works (as well as the beautiful and unique works made by folk handicraftsmen) are to be highlights in an artistically organized environment formed mainly by less individualized artistic products manufactured at plants and objects that are created on a basis of design planning.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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