Throughout history, especially in the Western world, arts have always existed under a sort of hierarchy - history painting was above portraiture, portraiture above still life, poetry was above prose, opera above the popular song. Applied arts, as necessary and ever present as they may have been, always had to take the proverbial back seat to their more "important" creative counterparts. It was only in the late 19th century, with the rise of Arts & crafts movement and the Art nouveau that the applied arts come to the forefront of public attention.
In the broadest sense of the word, Applied arts are those in which artistic design is applied to utilitarian objects of everyday use (as opposed to Fine arts which have no function other than to aesthetically and intelectually stimulate the viewer). Industrial design, graphic design, fashion design, interior design, and the decorative arts all belong to the realm of Applied arts. Offering endless opportunities for originality, these arts, with their truely immense scope of influence, enrich our daily lives and can make even the most mundane utensil in our home a pleasure for the eyes.
From the Volkswagen Beetle to the latest iPod, from the chair at your desk to the new Alpha Romeo, industrial design is all around us. It aims to make our lives easier, to optimize function, value and appearance guided by special requierements. Marrying function with form, design is as much an art as it is a part of engineering. It turns purely mechanical objects into aesthetically pleasing items, it enhances their use and appeal.
Choice of materials must be considered, wether glass is more appropreate, metal or wood. A design can make a new product "sink or swim" on the market - it can make it into a sleek, aerodynamic image of luxury, or a clunky, ill-proportioned eye-sore. Dieter Rams (closely associated with Braun), Sir Jonathan Ive (creator of many of Apple's iconic products), Richard A. Teague's work for the American Motor Company, all pinnacles of industrial design, show how important a strong visual identity combined with a highly practical product can (and often does) equal success.
Graphic design arose as a separate discipline soon after the advent of the printing press in the 15th century. Engravings soon replaced hand-painted book illustration, and communication through visual images started to gain momentum. Sign-painting was yet another early form of graphic design, soon to be followed by poster painting in the 19th century (Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha spring to mind as the supreme masters of this genre), newspaper advertising, and pamphlets.
Very closely tied to marketing (and propaganda), graphic design always was used to convey ideas in a symbolic yet memorable manner. One is only to remember the importance of Raymond Loewy's Royal Dutch Shell and the original British Telecom logos. While it did ocasionally cross over into "higher" forms like Pop art and certain aspects of Americana, graphic design has for the most part remained a practical method of communication using images, words, or graphic forms. With the advent of the internet, it has become one of the dominant branches of applied arts and an inseparable part of web development.
Possibly the most attractive to the general public and definitely the most discussed in the media, fashion has been a hot topic for centuries. Still, design as we know it today started with Charles Frederick Worth, the first who was able to dictate style instead of obey it. Before him, the bourgeoisie and the common people simply copied the garments of their social superiors. The court was the source of inspiration, not the runway. Yet it all changed with the advent of the fashion house, the designer who could predict and dictate the trends. Soon came French Chanel and Dior, Italian Gucci, Versace and many more.
Influenced by social and cultural norms and expectations, fashion has had a temendous impact on how we see ourselves and eachother. A creative outlet, it was also a way to either reinforce or challenge the status quo. Be it expensive haute couture or affordable mass-market, it is wearable art.
Closely tied to architecture yet quite distinct from it, interior design fulfills our need to live in beautiful surroundings. A multifaceted profession, it has to take into consideration everything from architectural limits, practical matters such as health and safety concerns, as well as purely aesthetic goals to (ideally) create an environment that is confortable and pleasant to live in.
Interior design can be applied to residental and commercial spaces, but also on temporary structures such as the theater stage, event design etc. Its aesthetic aims are susceptible to change of style - the horror vacuii of Victoriana being replaced by the elegance of Art deco, followed by the stark minimalism of De Stijl, the groundbreaking yet sometimes naively utopian visions of Modern art, and more recently influences from the north, from Scandinavia. Today, natural light and materials, airiness and feeling of space, subtle colors are de rigueur. Yet who knows what might come next...
From the lavishness of baroque to the severe directness of Bauhaus, each era has left its imprint on the most diverse of all the applied arts. Materials used vary as much as the purpose both of which, in turn, can make the item an affordable household utensil or an exquisite, jewel-encrusted objet d'art. Often classified as mere "crafts", decorative arts serve a definite purpose of embelishing everyday objects and enhancing their functionality. The practice has been around since the dawn of time and it encompasses ceramics, glassware, basketry, jewelry, metalware, furniture, stained glass, tapestry, and textiles. Decorative art also embraces just about any category of "precious or crafted object" with only limited practical use. Fabergé Easter Eggs are a perfect example of this. Still, in most instances, the average piece of decorative art will have an extremely practical use such as eating from or having a nap on.
Through the centuries, through all the changes in taste, the question remains - is it art? How do we see it, as serious or as disposable? Or is it, at the end, only important that it serves its very practical and mundane purpose? Applied arts have long been a matter of debate but through it all, they have remained an inseparable part of our existance, of our way of defining our place in the world and making our lives as pleasant as possible. It is quite likely that they will remain so for a long time to come.
Editor's tip: The culture of craft
The fine line between a fine art, a craft, and modern technology has been blurred, distorted, erased, and crossed over many times in the last century or two. This has consequently made it next to impossible to define. Yet Peter Dormer attempts just that. In a series of discussions and articles, he tries to explain the role of technology in modern-day aesthetics and design, a way innovation and functionality can and do go hand in hand with artistic expression and creativity, even in our own utilitarian 21st century cosmos. A great read for anyone interested in the way applied arts play their role in our perception of our surroundings.
Featured images: Christopher Dresser - Tteapot, 1870, via volusion.com ; Coca Cola logo, a variant on the original design from 1885 by Frank Mason Robinson, via nocookie.net ; Vivienne Westwood - Autumn / Winter season '82-83 "Buffalo Girls" ; Sir Jonathan Ive - Ipod Nano, 2nd generation, via apple.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.
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