The Functional Past of Decorative Objects

"Decorative" is in the eye of the beholder. A review of the Asian Decorative Arts category of our Fall Gallery Auction reveals a selection of beautiful things that, while they may serve a purely decorative function in our modern homes, originally had very specific and eclectic uses. Part of the joy of bringing things from diverse cultures into our homes is gaining a bit of insight into that culture in the process. Read below to explore how a few of the things we now consider "decorative" were lived with in their original context.

Chinese Wedding Baskets
Traditional Chinese weddings are replete with ceremonial customs and symbolic gestures, from betrothal to the days after the wedding. There are tea ceremonies, hair-dressing ceremonies, and much back and forth between the bride's and groom's families, to ensure each other's suitability, make overtures on behalf of their sons and daughters, and ultimately congratulate each other on a match well made. Both families come to each other bearing gifts like teas, linens and traditional, symbolic foods, in highly decorative baskets like the ones below. That such detail and craftsmanship are applied to even the containers for these gifts underscores the importance of the wedding occasion.
fullsizeoutput_16Two Antique Chinese Wedding Baskets

Porcelain Hat Stands
Not so different from the modern West, in ancient China a person's dress spoke volumes about their status. The more decorative one's clothes, most likely the more important one was. The hats of a person of a certain standing were elaborately embroidered affairs, requiring their own place of importance when not being worn. The Chinese used beautifully painted porcelain stands, likes the ones below, to display their hats. The perforations in some stands allowed air to circulate so that odors from the hat could dissipate, and some stands were made to contain incense to perfume the hat. The Foo Lions on the matched pair of stands below connote strength and protection. Leland Little Asian Arts Director Kendal Parker notes that Foo Lions painted in blue are especially rare. Antique hat stands are often turned into lamps, but the idea of artfully displaying one's hats has its own appeal.
alt A Matched Pair of Chinese Porcelain Hat Stands with Foo Lions

Ceramic Pillows
Ceramic pillows are naturally captivating to the Western imagination, in which "pillowy" definitely doesn't coincide with "breakable." The most practical reason for the evolution of the ceramic pillow is simply that Southern China (from where the oldest examples of ceramic pillows come) gets really hot. Ceramic pillows were one of the ways the ancient Chinese kept themselves cool while they slept. They were also thought to promote optimal sleeping posture, and to be good for eyeball health. The pillows were also considered to be a conduit between the conscious and unconscious mind and therefore were often inscribed with poetry, philosophy, or symbolic images. They were made in many different shapes and forms, which also held symbolic meaning. The oldest examples of ceramic pillows were found in tombs, one of the many objects buried with the deceased so that they might have everything they needed in the afterlife.
fullsizeoutput_17Chinese Porcelain Cat Form Pillow

Calligraphy Water Dropper
In many Asian countries, calligraphy has long been a full-fledged art form alongside any other medium. It is a meticulous discipline, with rituals that border on the devotional. To mix their ink, calligraphers use a water dropper with two holes, one over which the artist puts his finger to precisely control the flow of water out of the other hole. They use this dropper to wet the ink stone on which they will then grind an ink stick until they have ink of their desired consistency. The water dropper from our Fall Gallery Auction, below, is unusually large and particularly finely ornamented.
altAn Asian Porcelain Water Dropper

It has become novel in the age of industrial manufacturing for functional items to have aesthetic value as well. The relatively young field of industrial design addresses the dichotomy between "utilitarian" and "decorative" to a certain degree, but it's still hard to imagine that a hundred and fifty years from now people will put today's iPhones on display. But the simplicity of the original uses of these antique decorative objects adds to their allure - they are the quotidian elevated to an art form.

Complete Catalogue for the Fall Gallery Auction

Content created by the Leland Little Editorial Team