Published: August 31, 2010
As patriarch of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, Gustav Stickley (1858‱942) helped transform concepts about the ideal early Twentieth Century household. Riding a wave of concern about spreading industrialization that treated workers like machines and turned out cheaply made goods that exacerbated the excesses of Victorian décor, he offered plain, strong furnishings that were aesthetically pleasing, utilitarian †and affordable.
The design, production and marketing of the Stickley firm’s reasonably priced work †from furniture and metalware to textiles and lighting †helped end the era of Victorian ornamentalism. Moreover, Stickley’s emphasis on good workmanship, simple design and the rewards of honest hand labor continue to influence US craftsmanship to this day.
Stickley’s seminal contribution was to balance core Arts and Crafts principles that emphasized functional and handmade objects within a factory production system that enabled the sale of his products at reduced costs. To understand his success, both aesthetically and commercially, requires insights into the artistic, financial and social context of Stickley’s enterprise, the ideological development of his operation and the formation of the Craftsman home and lifestyle.
In an excellent overview, “Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement” offers a comprehensive examination of this subject. Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and curated by Kevin W. Tucker, that museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, the exhibition opens at the Newark Museum September 15 and will remain on view through January 2. Coinciding with the centennial of Stickley’s home, Craftsman Farms in Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J., the exhibition includes more than 100 works produced by Stickley’s designers and workshops, along with architectural drawings and related designs. The accompanying catalog is insightful and informative.
Born in Osceola, Wis., just before the Civil War, Stickley apprenticed as a stone mason as a young man. After moving with his family to Pennsylvania, he learned about furniture making in his uncle’s chair factory.
In 1888, he and Elgin Simonds formed Stickley & Simonds Company, a conventional furniture manufacturer. In 1892, they built a sizeable factory in Eastwood, N.Y., outside Syracuse. Each floor of the main building was partitioned into rooms or spaces for specific manufacturing functions. A dedicated railroad spur expedited movement of material and stock. Stickley & Simonds prospered, “producing commercially viable but mostly artistically undistinguished work,” said curator Tucker.
Just before the turn of the century, fussily ornamental Victorian household furnishings, which had been all the rage, came under attack by tastemakers and furniture trade journals. House Beautiful in 1896 presciently urged the “wisdom of restraint” in interior decorating and suggested relegating popular Nineteenth Century furnishings to “a special room &†where the black metal clocks, onyx tables and stuffed satin chairs may be arranged in all their ghastly impressiveness.”
In a 1900 article, “A Plea for Plainer Furniture,” Furniture Journal asked, “Isn’t it time that we protest against &†furniture made in the most roundabout way, just to afford a series of projections and depressions which in some incomprehensible way have come to be looked on as ornamental, but which &†are both ugly and inconvenient?”
As David Cathers observed in his catalog essay, “Articles such as these signaled weariness with the eclecticism and elaboration of Victorian household furnishings, at least among tastemakers writing for a middle-class readership.” Moreover, Cathers cites Edward Bok, editor of the mass-circulation Ladies’ Home Journal, who took up the cause, “urging his readers to buy plain, sturdy furnishings and banish fancy ornaments that did no more than ‘gather dust and offend the eye& The curse of the American home today is useless bric-a-brac.'”
About this time, after learning about progressive furniture designs during travels in Europe, Stickley engineered his partner’s removal and assumed control of the firm, renaming it Gustave Stickley Company. (He later dropped the “e” in his first name.) Following the introduction of a new line of Arts and Crafts furniture in 1901, the company was renamed United Crafts. Two years later, with expansion into metalwork, textiles and home design, it was renamed Craftsman Workshops, which lasted until its dissolution in 1916.
Although he withheld his fire initially, Stickley later expressed his views about Victorian décor, said Cathers, aiming “his critique at over-elaborate, mass-produced ornament, not just because it was ugly and insipid but also because it falsely mimicked traditional handicraft. In its stead, he offered his clean, pared-down designs.”
In 1900, Stickley’s firm began producing his New Furniture, soon abetted by careful divisions of labor among his employees that increased efficiency and productivity. The genius of his success lay in combining skilled hand craftsmanship with an enlightened harnessing of the power of machines. “The scale of this enterprise,” said Tucker, “allowed Stickley to produce thousands of pieces of furniture each year †from special orders and large case pieces to chairs, the latter, as for most general furnishing producers, constituting the bulk of the production.”
Stickley’s innovative and affordable wares were a big hit, critically and commercially. Thousands of visitors were exposed to his firm’s designs through exhibitions at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, the 1904 St Louis Exposition and other venues.
Stickley’s retail network, which eventually comprised more than 100 stores around the country, sold thousands of pieces of furniture and other items annually, popularizing his creations as exemplars of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The exhibition is filled with prime examples of masterworks in various media. Among the early standouts is a boldly simple chalet table, circa 1900, which signaled Stickley’s break from the elaborately ornamented language of the past. It set the stage for what was to come, such as a leather upholstered oak chair, 1901, that reclines like the popular Morris chair. Some early designs appear to have been inspired by the innovative work of Charles Rohlfs.
The highlight of the show is a re-creation of a 1903 dining room. The beautifully organized setting includes oak and burlap wall coverings, a Donegal carpet with floral ornamentation, refined Grueby pottery on a table and sideboard and related furnishings. Of particular note is a huge linen chest whose “low profile, refined lines, and simple wrought-iron fittings [are] a stunning example of Stickley’s designers at the height of their creative powers,” said Tucker.
Even more massive is an oak sideboard, 43 by 108¼ by 26 inches, that looks like it could hold an enormous trove of objects. It is complemented by a smaller but handsome and foursquare oak serving table, dating to around 1902‱903.
Also of special interest is a unique three-fold screen, circa 1902‱905, with floral motifs. An armoire, circa 1907‱912, is interesting because Stickley kept it for his private use long after he left his business and continued to experiment on it with various varnishes. “The piece is a personal testament to his enduring creative spirit and energy,” Tucker observed.
The cooper and wood inlay on an armchair, circa 1903, reflects Stickley’s brief experimentation with decorated Arts and Craft furniture inspired by the work of progressive British and Scottish designers. “The form of the sled-footed chair,” noted Tucker, “is equally influenced by European sources, yet its elegant realization is distinctly American in character.”
In addition to a plain but appealing copper candlestick, a five-light electrolier, an electric lantern and an electric lamp document Stickley’s genius for incorporating Arts and Crafts motifs into lighting fixtures.
Similarly, a linen table scarf decorated with ginkgo blooms shows the deft hand of designer Louise Shrimpton and the skilled production of Craftsman Workshops.
The exhibition explores the role of The Craftsman , a popular monthly journal founded by Stickley and Irene Sargent, a Syracuse University art historian, who wrote articles and became an important spokesperson for the Arts and Crafts Movement. Among other things, the journal traced the ideas of British Arts and Crafts leader William Morris back to John Ruskin; both emphasized the union of mind and craft. While Stickley’s firm did not adhere to the Morris-Ruskin model in which, as Ruskin put it, “Every artist should be a workman” and each artisan should assume the role of designer and craftsperson, it did further the broad ideals of the movement.
Cathers argued in his essay that Stickley “could ‘think in his material,’ and in that sense united the role of designer and craftsman within himself.” But “the roles of designer and maker were strictly separate within [Stickley’s] firm, as was typical in the industry,” noted Joseph Cunningham in his catalog essay.
The Craftsman promoted the idea that if builders and homeowners made the effort, they could construct beautiful and useful Craftsman homes. The periodical envisioned “suburbs and countryside … dotted with simple, garden-circled homes that men and women have planned out of their own minds and hearts &†[and] made comfortable and lovely through the work of their own hands&”
Emphasis was placed on the active participation of the homeowner “in planning, designing, finishing and furnishing,” Beverly K. Brandt observed in the catalog. “The true Craftsman home,” she continued, “demanded a level of commitment on the part of the homeowner, resulting in a rare connection between home and occupant that was physical as well as intellectual, emotional and even spiritual.”
Concludes Brandt, “Unpretentious in appearance, the Craftsman home nevertheless had grand aspirations to be part of the American dream.”
Around 1905, Stickley moved his headquarters to New York City, but business dropped off at the outset of World War I, and by 1915 the firm entered bankruptcy. When he died, penniless, in Syracuse at the age of 84, his pieces were considered out of date and of little value.
A prediction he made years earlier, however, has proved prescient: “Oak furniture that shows plainly what it is, and in which the design and construction harmonize with the wood &†will in time become valuable &†[and] will be treasured as heirlooms in this country.” Indeed, the personal, creative response of this remarkable man to the tenets of Arts and Crafts thinking, whether in wood, metal, textiles, interior design or complete homes, continues to resonate in simplified lifestyles for many today.
After closing in Newark, the exhibition travels to the Dallas Museum of Art (February 13⁍ay 8) and the San Diego Museum of Art (June 18⁓eptember 11, 2011).
The 272-page catalog written by curator Taylor with essays and contributions by other Stickley authorities, is published by Yale University Press.
For a total immersion in the Stickley way of life, a visit to Craftsman Farms, his family home from 1911 to 1915, is the answer. Owned by the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills, N.J., and operated by the Craftsman Farms Foundation, it showcases the best of Stickley décor and furnishings in a Craftsman chestnut-log house. For information, www.StickleyMuseum.org or 973-540-1165.
The Newark Museum is at 49 Washington Street. For information, 973-596-6550 or www.NewarkMuseum.or g.
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