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Decorative Arts & Design: Sources and Contexts, Narratives of Taste


Admission requirements

See MA Arts and Culture programme guide and Exam regulations.


In this seminar, we will examine written texts on design. The texts can be Western as well as non-Western and from the 16th until the 20th century. The texts can be letters, memoirs, novels, design theories, all having something to say about material culture in general and design and decorative art in particular. We shall consider these texts as narratives and analyse how they relate to their historical context. We will analyse these texts focussing on the concepts of taste and beauty, and of gender. For the most part, the texts give personal judgments on ornament and style, on fashionable items and on what is or is not ‘right’ and ‘good’ in terms of design and taste. They can be part of a specific artistic discourse, a general discourse of a social and cultural nature, a philosophical discourse or a highly personal discourse.

Students will each work with two texts, first analyse the narrative structure of these texts and their special qualities and then relate them to artifacts and interiors of their time by examining a historical context related to the period of the texts. Texts may be read in various preferred languages but the seminar will be in English.

Course objectives

Students learn to:

  • work with original source texts on design and decorative arts

  • analyse these source texts in a critical way, examine their narrative structure and the implications of this structure

  • relate these source texts to a historical context on taste which is relevant for decorative art, design and material culture

  • present an academic paper about their results before the class

  • present their results into a written paper on an academic level

  • present a course portfolio with their paper


See the timetable on the Arts and Culture website.

Mode of instruction

Research seminar. We will also visit an exhibition.

Attendance is compulsory. Students are allowed to miss a maximum of two seminars.

Assessment method

  • Participation in discussion of texts and oral presentation during the seminars – 10%

  • Written paper – 60% (5000 words, 1.5 spacing excl notes and references)

  • Course portfolio – 30%


Blackboard will be used for assignments and communication in general.

Reading list

Texts will appear on Blackboard shortly before the start of the course. For an indication of the texts and course content see the Open Course Ware website.


Students have to register for this course in uSis, the registration system of the university: General information about registration in uSis you can find here in Dutch and in English.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.

Students who are not in the MA Arts and Culture programme, but who would like to take this course as an optional course, please contact the Co-ordinator of studies.

Contact information

Dr. M.H. Groot


  • The course is compulsory for the specialisation Design and Decorative Art Studies, and makes up this specialisation together with a specialist reading list, a second specialist course on Contemporary Design and Art in semester 2, an apprenticeship or third general course, and your MA thesis.

  • As a compulsory course of the specialisation Design and Decorative Art Studies of the MA Arts and Culture this course aims to learn you to work with written sources and to understand the methods and problems these sources might bring along when carrying out research on a specialist level with regard to a chosen subject and period of time – hence the time span from the 16th until the 20th century.