A Brief Guide to Functional Fine Art

The term “fine art” is very broad; it can be applied to everything from Monet’s Water Lilies to Ansel Adam’s photographs of Yosemite. Usually, however, the term refers to works that are made for purely aesthetic purposes. Monet’s Water Lilies are designed to be hung on the wall and admired. Functional fine art, on the other hand, combines aesthetics with utility. A decorated Chinese vase, for example, may be beautiful, but it can also be used to display flowers. Ahead, learn more about the history of functional art.


The Bauhaus school was founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, an architect who wanted to merge art and craft. This movement proved highly influential, and its core philosophy—to combine design aesthetics and mass production—still inspires artists today. Notable Bauhaus works include the Bauhaus building in Dessau, the Wassily Chair, Universal Bayer, and Marianne Brandt’s Model No. 49.


In 1932, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened an Architecture and Design department. This made it one of the first major museums to showcase functional art alongside fine art. Over the decades, this collection has housed everything from helicopters to tableware, effecitvely expanding the definition of art.


Fashion has always married art and function, but over the last few decades, it’s finally been embraced by the artistic community. Every year, the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute hosts an exhibition on the history of fashion art. These exhibitions have celebrated specific designers, like the provocative Alexander McQueen, as well as overarching themes, like the influence of Catholicism on fashion. The continued presence of haute couture collections, from fashion houses like Dior and Chanel, have turned fashion into an art world mainstay. While these collections often feature exuberant ensembles that would look strange in a real world context, they are still meant to be worn, making them a unique intersection between fine art and function.

Functional fine art is now embraced by the art community. It can be seen in major museums, purchased in stores, and found in closets. Only time will tell what functional artists have in store for us next.