The MFAH collection of decorative arts and design focuses on works of extraordinary craftsmanship and originality made from the 17th century to the 21st. The diversity of design is shown through both handcrafted and industrially produced objects.
The department collects all the major design movements, ranging from 19th-century revivalist design, the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements through Art Nouveau, Art Deco, the Bauhaus, Scandinavian Modern, studio craft, Postmodernism, and continuing to objects made just yesterday. It is particularly known for late 19th-century American works by the Herter Brothers and Louis Comfort Tiffany as well as its collection of works designed by architects. Among the highlights of the pre-1900 collection are superb pieces of European silver, largely made between 1660 and 1760, and 19th-century furniture, metalwork, ceramics, and glass by artists including A. W. N. Pugin, Emile Gallé, and John Scott Bradstreet.
In 1997, the Decorative Arts Department began focusing its collecting and exhibition efforts on objects made after 1900. This move included a new emphasis on craft and design, and the MFAH is now considered one of the leading collecting institutions in these fields in America.
Modern and contemporary decorative arts in the collection are international in scope and include furniture, tableware, jewelry, and objects made from wood, ceramics, glass, metal, textiles/fiber, plastics, and other materials. The department is particularly interested in materials and techniques that are innovative for their time, such as early 20th-century tubular steel, today’s rapid-prototyped plastics, and other new processes. In the case of industrially produced work, the department collects prototypes and objects made as close to the original design date as possible. Of particular note are the studio-craft holdings exemplified by the Helen Williams Drutt Collection of jewelry and the Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio Collection of ceramics.
Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio assembled one of the most important collections of modern and contemporary ceramics in the world. Functional vessels, abstract and sculptural forms, and narrative works broaden traditional ideas about ceramics as an art form. Works by European and American artists form the core of the holdings, with Asian, African, and Latin American artists also represented. Nearly 500 objects explore a range of aesthetics by a roster that includes artists Sir Anthony Caro, Laszlo Fekete, Lucio Fontana, Anne Kraus, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, and Beatrice Wood.
This renowned collection of modern and contemporary jewelry is recognized throughout the world for its depth and quality. Helen Williams Drutt assembled objects by a truly international group of 175 artists from 18 countries. The heart of the collection consists of American, Dutch, and German objects, augmented by significant holdings of Australian, Austrian, British, Czech, Japanese, and Scandinavian works. Gijs Bakker, Peter Chang, Georg Dobler, Stanley Lechtzin, Wendy Ramshaw, and Olaf Skoogfors are just a few of the artists represented.
The museum's Decorative Arts Department was founded in 1976. From the beginning, the department has presented a remarkable exhibitions program, including two early landmark American decorative arts shows: The Gothic Revival Style in America, 1830–1870 in 1976 and Marks of Achievement: Four Centuries of American Presentation Silver in 1986. The exhibition and catalogue for Herter Brothers: Furniture and Interiors for a Gilded Age, which opened at the MFAH in 1994, continue to be regarded as the definitive works on this important 19th-century firm. In 2007, the MFAH premiered the major touring exhibition Ornament as Art: Avant-Garde Jewelry from the Helen Williams Drutt Collection, a groundbreaking study of the art of modern and contemporary jewelry. In these and other exhibitions through the years, the department has endeavored to bring the decorative arts in all its forms to Houston.
If you have an interest in 20th- and 21st-century design, architecture, and craft, join the Design Council. This group supports the museum’s growing collection of decorative arts and design. Members meet bimonthly, September through May, for lectures, visits to private collections, and behind-the-scenes exhibition tours. The meetings are informal, conversation is always lively, and members have an opportunity to meet people who share similar interests. Design Council members actually help the museum's decorative arts collection to grow: The season culminates in May of each year with members voting on artworks to acquire for the MFAH. Since its founding in 1998, the Design Council has added 45 objects to the collection through the dues of its members. Programs include talks by internationally recognized designers and craftspeople, as well as visits to local workshops and showrooms.
The Houston Antiques Dealers Association (HADA) Annual Lecture, established in 1982, is the oldest endowed lecture at the MFAH. For more than 30 years, distinguished scholars have lectured on the decorative arts, including speakers from institutions such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Getty Museum, and LACMA. HADA's mission is to encourage and promote the highest standards for antiques dealers and to educate the public about collecting antiques. Since 1964, HADA’s primary objective has been sponsoring a show that would bring quality dealers to Houston as a means to help support local charities. Each year a portion of the ticket sales is donated to support many of Houston’s worthiest causes, including the ongoing lecture series at the MFAH.