Think about how many ways you use the term style. We describe people as having style, apply the term to music, literary works, objects, events or performances. In the fine and decorative arts the term style is used most often to describe a specific set of visual characteristics. We see style when we notice visual characteristics repeated over and over again in a group of objects. Recognizing styles is a process of making comparisons and contrasts. It involves the difference between looking and really seeing something.
There are several important characteristics to look for when trying to determine the stylistic category of an object. These include line, proportion, volume, ornamentation, texture, material, color and scale.
To understand the word style as merely a list of physical attributes, however, is too limiting. In order to fully comprehend the concept of style it is important to investigate additional concepts such as relationships and choice. Relationships can exist between objects and aspects of the culture and society in which they were created not just with some physical characteristics. An excellent example of this is the eagle on furniture, a late 18th Century symbol that is closely identified with the founding of a new nation.
Choices about objects are made by both the makers and the buyers/users of those objects. Certain design elements or combinations of elements were created at particular times for different reasons. As with the federal eagle, the choice of an eagle as decoration is a deliberate one made by the craftsman and/or the person who ordered the piece.
Developing an appreciation for these three concepts– the visual characteristics, relationships and choices inherent in any decorative art object—will lead to a better concept of style.