Functions of Embellishment

Functions of Embellishment


Modern eyes have grown accustomed to the sleek, streamlined designs devoid of unnecessary ornamentation found in utilitarian items of our century.  One advantage to this aesthetic is its facility for quicker, less expensive manufacture of objects made in substantial quantities.  When constructed by hand in earlier times, however, objects with equivalent or parallel functions were often candidates for some degree of embellishment.


Most of the objects in this section may see strange or unidentifiable, yet their various functions have direct parallels to contemporary living. Embellishment for some of these objects is directly related to their intended purposes, such as the fishing lures and cookie mold.


The ornamented surfaces of the others may have resulted from the desire to boost market appeal, create a special object to give as a gift, or simply as pure enjoyment for the maker.

Head to Toe

The basic structure of the clothing we wear and the accessories we carry offer a blank canvas for creative surface embellishment. Thread, beads, leather, shells, and any number of other materials replace the paint used by other artists, and the brush is exchanged for a needle.


The color palette is vast, the ability to create new textures is unrestrained, and design possibilities are limited only by the maker’s imagination and skill.


Most of the applied embellishments represented in this section draw their inspiration from nature. Floral and vegetal motifs are a popular choice and are executed in a variety of representational as well as stylized depictions. In one instance nature is preserved, rather than interpreted, as ornamentation by collecting and using actual samples from the wild.                                                                                                       


Objects—whether purchased, collected, received as a gift, or hand made—often serve as reminders of specific events, rites of passage, or memorable individuals with whom we have shared our lives. Who of us has ever returned from an unforgettable trip without bringing back some memento to aid in reliving the experience? Or, can you remember acquiring your first automobile and its symbolism for entering adulthood?  And what about that lock of hair from your child’s first haircut or late Aunt Zelda’s favorite handmade doily, which are squirreled away in a closet or drawer?


In this section we find fascinating objects of embellishment created by some very enterprising individuals to commemorate memorable events or people in their lives.  Some are quite personal in nature, such as Story of a Summer that delightfully replaces the trays of slides from a summer vacation. Others, like the World’s Columbian Exposition Quilt, help capture the excitement of a very public event from more than a century ago.  At least one, George Washington on Horseback, demonstrates a strong patriotic spirit, which, in turn, helps us to discern the maker’s motivation for creating the piece.

Whimsies, Novelties, & Conceits

Embellished objects need not serve a particular function. They may be created simply to delight, amuse, amaze, or even puzzle those for whom they are made. The impetus for fabricating some is buried in long-standing traditions passed along culturally or generationally. Others are inspired by popular fads. Still others are created as demonstrations of specific skills.


The whimsy is a classification of object primarily associated with American folk art. They are usually made by those who have not received formal training in their craft and created to amuse. Novelties generally are made to dazzle viewers with technical prowess, unexpected materials, or unusual interpretations, and they may or may not be crafted by folk artists.  Conceits, on the other hand, are fancy objects created purely for decorative purposes but cherished as personal items. Often the boundaries between these categories are blurred.