The Dawn of Decorative

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Decorative arts have been visible in the surroundings of home dwellings since the early days of human existence. Today’s decorative artists stand on the shoulders of millennia of predecessors dedicated to furthering the decorative arts for purposes from storytelling to beautification to wayfinding. Check out some of the amazing milestones that led to the rich world of decorative techniques and products available today.

10,000 BC

Animal hair and fur fibers are used as applicators of tree bark, sap, berries, fruit oils and animal fats on cave walls to create fresco-styled paintings representing scenes in everyday life.

5,000 BC

Mesopotamians craft copper, bronze, gold and iron into elaborate wall decorations and develop plaster decorative relief art, glassmaking, textile weaving and lamp making.


Asian interiors are designed to bring peace, balance and serenity to the space, which is kept simple and uncluttered. Dramatic color, texture, nature’s green, multi-purpose furniture, floral rugs, tasseled window treatments, falling water and the peaceful look of standing water with fish are prominent.


In Egypt, new developments including the invention of papyrus for writing and painting, the discovery of the process for enameling pottery, and the use of glass substantially contribute to the evolution of decorative art.


The Russians widened iconic types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere. Most often painted on a flat panel depicting a holy being, icons may also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, done in mosaic work, or printed on paper or metal. Many Russian Orthodox homes feature icons hanging on the wall. In Russian churches, the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by a wall of icons.


In the early 1500s Pope Julius II commissioned a sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti, to perfect the art of fresco and provide decoration for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To create the masterpiece he tried a new mixture of plaster, which was resistant to mold and is still in use today. These highly original frescoes made a great impression on the artists of the time and set the standard for fresco technique.


The Taj Mahal is considered the finest example of the fusion of Persian, Turkish, Indian and Islamic architectural elements in existence. A labor force of 20,000 artists, engineers, architects, carvers, calligraphers and other craftsmen worked to create the ultimate collaborative effort of decorative artists in the 17th century.


The Renaissance was a dramatic cultural, intellectual and artistic movement between the 14th and 17th centuries. It began in the wealthy cities of Italy and spread quickly throughout the continent. Perspective and proportionality took on new importance, depiction of emotion became significant, and the production and use of oil paints were highly refined. The French and Italians each developed their own distinct faux finishing styles during the Renaissance. Both styles require a high degree of skill to execute and a strong sense of color and composition to execute properly.

As popularity of the fine art of the Renaissance filtered to the common folk, new methods of economically achieving the desired results were developed. For example, less expensive wood was not suitable for carving, so Faux Bois was used or geometrics and rosettes were painted on. Expense of the “real thing” resulted in refinement of trompe l’oeil and the monochrome Grisaille method used to simulate relief sculpture.


Marbling was developed as a lightweight, cost-effective faux alternative to genuine marble. It was widely used in Pompeii and spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance as two schools of faux finishing – the loose, artistic Italian and the formal, realistic French. These techniques have been used in all styles of construction including Baroque, Palladian, Neoclassical and Historical Revival, Art Nouveau, and even Art Deco.

As exotic woods became rarer and more expensive in 18th and 19th century France and England, the art of Faux Bois surged to the forefront. The skilled wood grainers from Europe, each contributing their own refinements, then brought the art to the New World, where it spread rapidly. While almost any surface in the home can be grained, artisans often showcase their skills with the most intricate grains on door panels.


As early as 9,000 B.C. humans were using their own hands as stencils to draw outlines on cave walls. Ancient Egyptians used stencils to decorate tombs, ancient Greeks used them to outline mosaics and the Romans used them to make signs directing citizens to events. The invention of paper by the Chinese in AD 105 allowed patterns to be duplicated, preserved and circulated for the first time. Stenciling became very popular in the Far East as designs were applied to fine silks, and that popularity was spread by tradesmen to the Western world. Europeans carried stenciling to new levels in the 17th and 18th centuries by applying intricate layered designs to wood veneers, wallpaper and even playing cards. Settlers in the New World used direct wall stenciling to avoid the high cost of importing European wall-paper until the advent of mass production in the late 19th century.

The decline of wallpaper’s popularity toward the end of the 20th century set the stage for a new era in stenciling. Today the art continues to evolve while sophisticated computers, laser cutting technology and revolutionary materials offer artisans possibilities limited only by their imaginations.


The Art Deco style is an opulent amalgam of numerous movements such as Bauhaus, Neoclassicism, Futurism, Cubism and Art Nouveau. The movement originated in France in the early 1900s and gained popularity by 1925. Art Deco’s popularity in Europe waned near the end of the 1920s but continued strongly in the U.S. through the ’30s and has experienced a number of short resurgences since then.

Art Deco style is characterized by juxtaposed geometric shapes of all types, bright contrasting colors and creative use of dissimilar material combinations. Many “modern” materials such as aluminum, glass and stainless steel are often partnered with natural but offbeat materials such as sharkskin and wood inlay. APC

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