I filled in the survey a while back, but this week I finally read an Art Documentation article that someone (I think Kathy Woodrell or it might have been Beth Goodrich) referred to me at least a year ago.  It is from the Summer 1993 issue: “The Decorative Arts: A Problem in Classification,” by Steven Blake Shubert.  I had put off looking at it as, although I am very interested in L.C. subject headings, I am less interested in L.C. classification as it seems so hopeless.  A long time ago I resigned myself to thinking that L.C. numbers are simply addresses—like street addresses—they carry about as much content.  Having a chunk of time yesterday, I turned to Shubert’s article and was surprised to find that three-fifths of the five-page essay is a very cogent history of the concept (in Western art) of “decorative arts,” beginning with the 17th century in Europe. 

                The term decorative art is derived from the Latin roots decorare, meaning to adorn or beautify, and ars, meaning skill, craft, or knowledge.  Its use is connected with the organization of knowledge as it evolved in the Western world. (p.77)

I’m not going to give you an overview of the article here as I think it is worth the hour or so it will take you to read it.  I will tell you that Shubert does not have a solution for the problem of the SIG name.  But he encapsulates very well the history of the problem and that—for me at least—helped to clarify that we are correct to look for a SIG name change at this time.

Here is Shubert’s final paragraph, which I think is helpful:

The usefulness of the category decorative arts is unquestioned.  The challenge is how to interpret the concept in a culturally unbiased manner and yet focus on a discrete set of objects.  If the decorative art concept continues to be interpr4eted in looser and broader ways, then decorative arts will become merely an art historian’s term for material culture, referring to every and any sort of artifact.  Yet if the traditional narrow interpretation of the decorative arts is accepted’ the judgment of artistic quality and suitability of material and technique is rooted in an elitist Eurocentric world view, which is no longer in keeping with the times.  Until this issue is resolved, the decorative arts as a category will continue to include any combination of media and techniques its users desire.  The term decorative arts will be valued for its flexibility and adaptability to different circumstances, but its content will remain ambiguous.

Shubert’s words from almost 30 years ago (!) hold up well I think.  I was fairly sure that “decorative arts” should be stricken from our name; but after reading Shubert’s article I now think the term should be included, though moved to a less prominent place, thus:

CRAFT, DESIGN, AND DECORATIVE ARTS SIG.  CDDA SIG—I think it trips lightly on the tongue.

                                                                                                                       –Joan M. Benedetti

Hot Off The Press: July 2021 Publications

Criss-crossing media and disciplines, the two new titles listed below display the breadth of decorative arts publications. A reprint of a 1978 classic rounds out this month’s collection. Images and descriptions are taken from the publisher or distributor websites, linked with each title.

A white book cover with an image of a disco ball below the title.

Materials, Practices, and Politics of Shine in Modern Art and Popular Culture

Shine allures and awakens desire. As a phenomenon of perception shiny things and materials fascinate and tantalize. They are a formative element of material culture, promising luxury, social distinction and the hope of limitless experience and excess. Since the early twentieth century the mass production, dissemination and popularization of synthetic materials that produce heretofore-unknown effects of shine have increased. At the same time, shine is subjectified as “glamor” and made into a token of performative self-empowerment.

The volume illuminates genealogical as well as systematic relationships between material phenomena of shine and cultural-philosophical concepts of appearance, illusion, distraction and glare in bringing together renowned scholars from various disciplines.

A book cover featuring an abstract image with multicolored shapes on a black background.

Jacoba van Heemskerck: Truly Modern

In less than two decades, Jacoba van Heemskerck (1876–1923) created a powerful oeuvre comprising paintings, woodcuts, glassworks, and mosaics. Her expressive subjects, including landscapes, townscapes, and harbor scenes, are characterized by luminosity and transparency, rhythmic compositions of the pictorial space, black contours, and an intensive use of color. After her artistic beginnings in the circle around Mondrian, Jacoba van Heemskerck joined the center of the avant-garde movement emanating from the “Sturm” of Herwarth Walden in Berlin—the gallerist and publisher who made artists like Marc, Kandinsky, and Jawlensky famous. Her creative work resonates with environmental movements today thanks to her understanding of nature and the cosmos as an interconnected whole.

An image of a book cover featuring a black and white image of a face in profile drinking from a cup.

Beyond East and West: Memoirs, Portraits, and Essays

A new edition of the retrospective of the celebrated potter’s most significant writings, including new images from the family archive.

Bernard Leach was as renowned in Japan and the East as in Europe and North America as an artist-craftsman and as a thinker. Known in the ceramic world as the father of British studio pottery, his interpretation of Asian traditions in ceramics and his unique philosophy of life were a lodestar for many potters in the West. Throughout his career, his techniques explored the interplay between Eastern and Western art.

Beyond East and West, first published in 1978, is a retrospective of more than ninety years of Bernard Leach’s long, illustrious life. Featuring some of Leach’s most significant writings and full of amusing, sharply-etched recollections, the essays have been placed in chronological order and annotated by the author for more coherence. The recurrent theme of the meeting of East and West is apparent at all levels—artistic, cultural, social, and political—of Leach’s life and writings. This new edition of a classic text, accompanied by new images from the Leach family archive, gives readers an intimate look at the life of one of the world’s most widely known and respected potters.

If you know of other decorative arts-related titles published in July 2021, please be in touch!

Panel Presentation at the Getty Research Institute Tomorrow

‘Vulcan And Venus’, Beauvais Manufactory, From Series The Loves Of The Gods, After François Boucher

Join the Getty Research Institute for a mid-week, mid-year research presentation tomorrow morning. Centering around the decorative arts in France between the 16th and 19th centuries, the event will feature two presentations by scholars about their ongoing research, followed by a moderated discussion. Making use of the Beauvais tapestry manufactory production registers, Getty Rothschild Fellow Pascal Bertrand take an “archeological approach to the art of tapestry-making” in his presentation on the Venus and Vulcan tapestries from the Loves of the Gods Series woven after François Boucher. Getty Museum Guest Scholar Agnès Bos will present preliminary findings from her investigations into the Order of the Holy Spirit, the most important French Royal Order of knighthood. Bos’ research explores the material culture and decorative arts objects created to give weight and visual drama to the Order’s annual ceremonies. Following the two presentations, Senior Curator Anne-Lise Desmas will moderate a discussion of the ongoing research.

The event will take place over Zoom, beginning at 10:30 AM PST. As this is not a public Getty event, the details of the Zoom meeting will be sent along to the SIG Google Group.

Curator Conversation at the Wharton Esherick Virtual Event Tomorrow

A split image showing a room with wooden furniture on a raised level on the left and a figure wearing glasses and a blue scarf on the right.
Image from the Wharton Esherick Museum website.

The Decorative Arts SIG’s own Beth Goodrich will be discussing materials related to sculptor and furniture maker Wharton Esherick held in the American Craft Council Digital Collections in a free online event hosted by the Wharton Esherick Museum. As noted in the event description, the ACC Digital Collections contain, “thousands of unique images, documents, and media, detailing the history of twentieth-century and contemporary craft in America,” including extensive records related to the renowned craftsman. The conversation will focus on, “Esherick’s 1958-1959 retrospective exhibition The Furniture and Sculpture of Wharton Esherick at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts…as well as his relationships with other craft artists represented in the ACC’s resources, such as Henry Varnum Poor and Ruth Reeves.”

Founded in 1972, the Wharton Esherick Museum comprises several historic buildings in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, including the home and studio of Wharton Esherick. Tomorrow’s talk is part of an ongoing series of Curator Conversations that began last summer. The talk will run from 3:00 to 3:45 pm EST. The event is free, but registration is required. You can register for the event here. Hope to see you there!

Hot Off The Press: June 2021 Publications

From grand gardens to quietly radical quilts, the four titles below cover a wide range of decorative arts related subjects. Images and descriptions are taken from the publisher or distributor websites, linked with each title.

An image of a book cover featuring a statue of a figure in a long dress holding a piece of fabric in an arc over their head.

1900 ~ The Year of Art Nouveau: Paris ~ Copenhagen · Copenhagen ~ Paris

A fully illustrated collection of the Designmuseum Danmark’s contribution to the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris.

At the height of the dynamic “new” style’s popularity, the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris offered a platform to the world’s recently established museums of decorative arts to celebrate the Art Nouveau on an unprecedented stage. 1900 ~ The Year of Art Nouveau describes how the fledgling Designmuseum Danmark (formerly the Danish Museum of Art & Design) acquired a substantial international collection prior to the festival, with special attention to the local Danish works exhibited in Paris.

A picture of a book cover with an image of an elaborate space defined by columns and arches.

Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy: Bibiena Drawings from the Jules Fisher Collection

This exhibition catalog explores the remarkable theatrical designs of Italy’s influential Bibiena family in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

For nearly a century, members of three generations of the Bibiena family were the most highly sought theater designers in Europe. Their elaborate stage designs were used for operas, festivals, and courtly performances across Europe, from their native Italy to cities as far afield as Vienna, Prague, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, and Lisbon. Beyond these performances, the distinctive Bibiena style survives through their remarkable drawings.

Architecture, Theater, and Fantasy commemorates a group of Bibiena drawings from the collection of Jules Fisher, the Tony Award–winning lighting designer, gifted to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. Accompanying the first US exhibition of these works in more than thirty years, these drawings demonstrate the range of the Bibienas’ output, from energetic sketches to detailed watercolors. Representations of imagined palace interiors and lavish illusionistic architecture illuminate the visual splendor of the Baroque period.

A book cover featuring an image of white, red, and yellow tulips on a light brown background.

England’s Magnificent Gardens: How a Billion-Dollar Industry Transformed a Nation, from Charles II to Today

An altogether different kind of book on English gardens—the first of its kind—a look at the history of England’s magnificent gardens as a history of Britain itself, from the seventeenth-century gardens of Charles II to those of Prince Charles today.

In this rich, revelatory history, Sir Roderick Floud, one of Britain’s preeminent economic historians, writes that gardens have been created in Britain since Roman times but that their true growth began in the seventeenth century; by the eighteenth century, nurseries in London took up 100 acres, with ten million plants (!) that were worth more than all of the nurseries in France combined.

Floud’s book takes us through more than three centuries of English history as he writes of the kings, queens, and princes whose garden obsessions changed the landscape of England itself, from Stuart, Georgian, and Victorian England to today’s Windsors.

A book cover featuring a quilted image six Black figures wearing matching outfits on a teal and black polka dot background.

Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories

A mother stitches a few lines of prayer into a bedcover for her son serving in the Union army during the Civil War. A formerly enslaved African American woman creates a quilt populated by Biblical figures alongside celestial events. A quilted Lady Liberty, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln mark the resignation of Richard Nixon. These are just a few of the diverse and sometimes hidden stories of the American experience told by quilts and bedcovers from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Spanning more than 400 years, the 58 works of textile art in this book express the personal narratives of their makers and owners and connect to broader stories of global trade, immigration, industry, marginalization, and territorial and cultural expansion. Made by Americans of European, African, Native and Hispanic heritage, these quilts and bedcovers range from family heirlooms to acts of political protest, each with its own story to tell.

If you know of other decorative arts-related titles published in June 2021, please be in touch!

“Voices in Studio Glass History” Preview Today

The Bard Graduate Center is hosting a preview and discussion of its forthcoming multi-media web-based digital exhibition and publication Voices in Studio Glass History: Art and Craft, Maker and Place, and the Critical Writings and Photography of Paul Hollister this evening. The project unites extensive documentation and thoughtful curation in an experience that is part archive, part exhibition. As an announcement for the event states, the extensive site explores, “themes of experimentation, shared knowledge, community building, international exchange, critical debate, the impact of museums and galleries, and fluidities among the categories of art, craft, and design.”

Visit here to register for the event, which will take place from 6-7:30 pm EST tonight.

National Art Library at V&A Petition

A warmly lit image of the National Art Library.
The National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. // Photo by Flickr user Michiel Jelijs.

As at many arts institutions in the United States and around the world, loss of visitor attendance due to the pandemic has led to dire financial straits at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Long a leader in the field of decorative arts, the museum is currently planning to restructure its curatorial departments to meet a leaner budget. As recounted in articles on artnet and Artforum, the proposed plan would dissolve the museum’s material specific departments and reorganize instead by time period, laying off some 20% of staff in the process.

Cuts are expected to be even more dire at the Victoria and Albert’s National Art Library, with two-thirds of staff expected to lose their jobs, as reported in ArtReview. Public outcry halted the nearby Wallace Collection’s library’s plan to close to the public last month. A petition started by Stephen Warwick hopes to force a similar reconsideration at the National Art Library.

To sign the petition to oppose the cuts and access restrictions at the Victoria and Albert’s National Art Library, please click here.

Toni Morrison Quilting Project Launches Today

Image of hand over quilt
Description: A participant works on a quilt at the 1968 Festival of American Folklife held on the National Mall, Washington, D.C. | Repository: Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections | Accession number: FAF1968_quilter_023

The Toni Morrison Quilting Project launches today. The project, which runs through May, aims to honor the legacy of Morrison as well as to craft new community around the medium. As project co-coordinator Camille Andrews notes in an article announcing the project, “Toni Morrison is one of the preeminent chroniclers of the African American experience and, much like quilt-making, she created beautiful, useful, and communal art out of the multiplicity and everyday experiences of her characters.” Carrying forward the metaphor, the project is itself a collaborative effort bringing together the Cornell University Library, Tompkins County Public Library, and the Community Quilting Resource Center.

The project invites Ithaca and Cornell community members to contribute quilt blocks and small quilts (of either fabric or paper) as well as to virtually join in on a series of workshops and book club meetings held over Zoom. All of the project’s details can be found on a clearly arranged LibGuide, in a perfect example of legacy library technologies working in tandem with new platforms to continue connecting community members even as social distancing measures remain necessary.

Decorative Arts SIG Virtual Quarterly Meeting Feb. 25

Please mark your calendars for the upcoming Decorative Arts SIG virtual quarterly meeting scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 25 at 10:00am PST, 12:00pm CST, 1:00pm EST.  We will use this meeting to discuss some of our ongoing initiatives and plan programming for future virtual meetings.  All are welcome to attend.  The agenda and Zoom link for the meeting will be released closer to the meeting date.

The Corning Museum of Glass publishes blog series on women in the glass industry

Woman doing lampwork
Illustration from Guillaume Louis Figuier, Industrie du verre et du cristal. About 1870. Courtesy of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

This past July the Corning Museum of Glass a new six-month blog series “Women in Glasshouses.”

The bi-weekly series of blog posts highlighted the many ways that women have contributed to the glass industry in the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment.

I wrote a post focused on women using the technique of lampworking, first working from home, then in American industry, particularly where women dominated the field assembling early lightbulbs:

You can find the entire series of posts at the following link:


These posts may change the way you see glass – from cut glass and 50s design to Pyrex and light bulbs!


Beth Hylen

Retired Reference Librarian, The Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass