Published: July 5, 2011
Stepping inside Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms home is akin to entering another world †nirvana for devotees of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This expansive log structure, whose centennial is marked this year, is an enduring showcase for the astute designer, savvy industrialist and visionary thinker.
Stickley’s simplified furniture and designs and dissemination of environmental and lifestyle ideas in his The Craftsman magazine influenced American tastes for furnishings and architecture at the turn of the Twentieth Century and ever after.
More than a century ago, the prescient Stickley bemoaned that “we have wasted and misused so many of our natural resources,” contending that people should be “living simple natural lives close to the soil and full of the interest and pleasure which comes from the kinship with Nature.” As he lived up to those ideals at Craftsman Farms, visitors today can take away lessons pertinent to the complexities and environmental problems of the Twenty-First Century.
The international Arts and Crafts Movement was jump-started in the mid-Nineteenth Century by the passionate writings of John Ruskin denouncing England’s expanding factory system and the poor quality of machine-made products. Advocating a return to practices of medieval craft guilds, Ruskin contended that “a visibly hand-made object had beauty because its irregularities betokened the freedom of the artisan who made it,” according to Stickley authority David Cathers.
Ruskin’s reform ideas were put into practice by William Morris, whose company turned out well-designed and largely handmade furniture, textiles, wallpapers and stained glass. A talented writer and speaker, Morris attracted many adherents to his efforts to revive traditional handcrafts, effectively launching the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Building on these British antecedents late in the Nineteenth Century, the form, proportion and color of Stickley’s furnishings reflected his superb sense of design, and his relentless marketing made his products widely known in the United States. His furniture †plain, sturdy and functional †emphasized visual details that suggested they were handmade while downplaying the machine processes used in its construction.
Thus, while Stickley’s appealing goods gave the appearance of being handcrafted in the best craftsman tradition, they were primarily the product of his efficient, well-equipped factory in Syracuse, N.Y. His “expansive creative vision and his dynamic entrepreneurial verve” made his products widely affordable, says Cathers.
Employing The Craftsman , published 1901‱916, to not only promote his products, but to disseminate his ideals, Stickley sought, with considerable success, to change popular taste from shoddy, fussily ornamental Victorian-age furnishings to his simple, unadorned products.
In The Craftsman, Stickley consistently advanced ideas about Craftsman houses, rational, unified structures, his belief in self-reliance and the crucial importance of home and family. This led to articles about gardening and landscaping as a means to beautify the home, and detailed, how-to advice for creating Craftsman-style furniture, textiles, leather, metal and ceramics.
On a broader plane, The Craftsman grappled with environmental concerns, supported the back-to-the-land movement and pushed for uncluttered lifestyles. “Like so much of what Stickley did,” observes Cathers, “his magazine sprang from commercial impulses, but in transcending those impulses, it taught and inspired a generation of artisans, designers and architects, and reached out to thousands more seeking a simpler way to lead their lives.”
A few years after moving his headquarters from Syracuse to New York City in 1905, Stickley began acquiring land around the Morris Plains-Parsippany-Troy Hills area of New Jersey for a boys farm school. The centerpiece of Craftsman Farms †his “Garden of Eden” †was a large log house made of chestnut logs gathered on the 650-acre property. It thus exemplified Stickley’s philosophy of building in harmony with the environment by using materials from nature. The main house, designed as a clubhouse for students, workers and guests, included an enormous kitchen in which meals for 100 people could be prepared, and living and dining areas were to be warmed by large fireplaces.
When Stickley decided that finances were too tight to open the school, the log house was retrofitted for his family, which included his wife, Eda, five daughters and a son. The house, observes furnishings expert Beth Ann McPherson, “was furnished as a family home and as a showcase of The Craftsman magazine’s design ideology&[Stickley] intended the log house to reflect the family’s commitment to the simple life and to suggest that a harmonious family lived within.”
Practicing what he preached, Stickley designed Craftsman Farms to be self-sufficient, with gardens for flowers and vegetables, orchards, chickens and dairy cows. Produce grown on the farm was used in the restaurant operated by Stickley in his furniture showroom and department store in Manhattan. Support buildings on the property included craft workshops, dairy barn, chicken coop, stables and three cottage dwellings.
Today, the property, owned by the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills and operated by the Craftsman Farms Foundation, retains the look and feel of Stickley’s original plan, albeit on 27 rather than 650 acres. As one expert, Nancy Strathearn, observed, “The essence of Gustav Stickley’s landscape remains amazingly intact. The bones of his creation can still be seen in the buildings, the stone wall and stairway and the four stone piers.”
The main log house, sited on the crest of a hill, appears to grow out of the land, as Stickley advocated. Entering via the front porch, one is struck by the long row of a dozen Stickley willow chairs; this space was used by the family as a reading, relaxing, living and dining space, with views of the landscape through large windows extending its sizable length. It sets a tone of tranquility and comfort that continues inside the house.
The capacious house interior with its harmonious browns and greens conveys the feel of being in nature. It is laid out in a characteristic open floor plan that encompasses a large dining space and a sizable living room with massive stone, copper-hooded fireplaces at either end, mission-style tables, ladder back chairs, easy chairs, benches, bookshelves, lamps and a piano. In all, says McPherson, “There are five fireplaces in the house, three with hammered copper hoods, two with brass and all with quotations or mottos embossed on them.”
Because Stickley had so many sources and styles to choose from in decorating his dream house, his selections, documented in The Craftsman articles and illustrations, are significant.
For his favorite reading perch, Stickley chose a massive Eastwood chair with soft velour cushions. It remains in place near one huge fireplace, accompanied by a custom-designed settle with a paneled, leather-covered back that creates a low room divider, and an “airy willow armchair [that] helped ease the visual weight of the massive settle and Eastwood chair and provided flexibility to the seating arrangement around the hearth,” according to Johnson.
At the center of the elongated living room are a long, green-stained elm library table from The Craftsman editorial office in Syracuse topped by three oil-burning lamps, a willow armchair and settle, a frequently used piano with inlay designed by Harvey Ellis, a tall Craftsman clock set against the second-floor stairway and three drugget rugs of the Stickley Scroll design.
At the opposite end of the room in front of the other fieldstone fireplace, Stickley placed an intriguing leather-covered hexagonal library table with expressive construction details associated with his early work, such as keyed tenons, stacked stretchers and large, round-headed brass tacks. Arm and post design armchairs and a Morris chair complete this ensemble.
A school dropout at age 12, Stickley was a voracious reader, which is reflected in several bookcases, notably a 7-foot-high chestnut bookcase custom-fitted to the central wall of the living room. The overflowing bookshelves attest to the variety of subjects the well-read designer, author and publisher favored.
Hewn from chestnut trees on the property, brown-stained log columns support log beams that form the fascinating structure of the living room ceiling. Diamond-pane windows, augmented by the golden glow of hammered copper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, give the large space a soft, harmonious feel.
Primary focus in the dining room is a massive, custom-designed oak sideboard, with hammered copper pulls, strap hinges and a chamfered-board back characteristic of Stickley’s early designs. Two high-backed chestnut benches flanked the stone fireplace opposite the sideboard.
Stickley arranged eight ladder back chairs around a large, round dining table likely custom made for the house. Specially built china cabinets stood in the north corner, and a large, elm double-bay cabinet, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, occupied the south end.
Ascending upstairs on the shiny oak stairway, with “S” cut out of the railings, visitors find four large, airy bedrooms of traditional Craftsman home designs and typical Craftsman furniture and three bathrooms.
The large children’s bedroom includes a fireplace of blue Grueby tiles and a brass hood, a handsome inlaid piano and a pair of oak double beds with wood and metal inlays in the Ellis style.
Notable in the master bedroom are a matte yellow, Grueby-tiled fireplace, a rare Craftsman chest with a cedar-lined “cupboard” top section, an attractive mirrored dressing table and a wide double bed.
Interestingly, the log house’s original furniture indicates that Stickley was partial to his earliest designs. “While the house is dominated by oak and chestnut furniture,” observes Johnson, “the soothing and comfortable effect would not be complete without the brass and copper fireplace hoods, hanging copper lanterns, Arts and Crafts rugs, leather-covered table tops and cushions, willow chairs and soft cloth pillows.” He concludes that the house’s furniture “clearly demonstrates that the unity of an Arts and Crafts house does not mandate uniformity.”
As architectural authority Ray Stubblebine has observed, “The log house& inside and out, singularly proclaims the romance of our nation’s agrarian past. It is firmly rooted in the ideals and dreams of a simpler age. Even as he sought to advance the fresh ideas of the new century in an increasingly urban world, Gustav Stickley sought his own happiness by returning to the land.”
Alas, in 1915, after only a few years at Craftsman Farms, Stickley’s declining business led him into bankruptcy and forced him to sell his beloved property. He returned to Syracuse, where he lived in obscurity, dying at age 84, poor and forgotten.
The Craftsman Farms estate was purchased by Major and Mrs George C. Weinberg (the name was later changed to Farny); they and their children conducted various businesses on the property and carefully modernized facilities, proving to be good stewards for seven decades. After the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills purchased the house and land in 1989, the site has been maintained by the nonprofit Craftsman Farms Foundation. It is a National Historic Landmark and open to the public.
Craftsman Farms is at 2352 Route 10 West. For information, 973-540-0311 or www.stickleymuseum.org .
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