Published: October 21, 2008
Of the seminal Arts and Crafts exhibitions of the past few decades, none more accurately reflects what it was like to have lived during the period than the recently opened exhibition at the Wadsworth Athenaeum, “At Home with Gustav Stickley.” If there is a clue to be shed as to why, it is that the majority of the properties in the exhibit are on loan from the “lived-in” collection of Stephen Gray and practically still warm from use.
Gray has been building his collection since the mid-1970s, when he began furnishing an Eighteenth Century farmhouse in Columbia County, N.Y. As the collection grew, his passion for Gustav Stickley’s work spawned a business. Operating as Turn of the Century Editions, Gray became a leading publisher of books on the American Arts and Crafts Movement, reprinting Stickley’s and other manufacturers’ trade catalogs. Serendipitously, just about the time Gray believed the collection “had evolved to the epitome of where I wanted it to be,” two curators from the Wadsworth Athenaeum toured the house and experienced a “revelatory moment,” as Linda Roth, co-curator of the exhibit, put it.
Gray’s home was as honest a representation of America’s “Craftsman Style” as is possible. In addition to the handsome, dark quartersawn oak furniture for which Stickley is known, the ambience was enlivened with Arthur Wesley Dow woodprints in period frames, Newcomb, Overbeck, Teco and Grueby pottery and tiles. Both Roth and Elizabeth Betsy Kornhauser, also co-curator, as well as the Krieble curator of American paintings and sculptures, saw the potential for exhibition in Gray’s collection.
Fortunately, Gray was in a similar frame of mind. The time had come to share his collection with a larger audience. He thought he could he could live without some of his furnishings for a while if he moved things around.
The genius behind the “look” that captivated a population caught at the crossroads of industry and technology at the turn of the last century was Gustav Stickley, a cabinetmaker from Syracuse, N.Y. Until 1900, Stickley, who, as a teenager had turned commercial, spent a few years making revival-style furniture. As the first year of the new century rolled into the second, he rolled out a rectilinear line of 61 designs in the tradition of Mission-style furniture. It was a huge departure from Victorian abundance and Stickley promoted the quartersawn oak pieces as “new furniture.”
His timing was perfect. Customers connected with the spiritual quality of the work. They flocked to his monthly magazine, The Craftsman , which was as much a stylebook for progressive living as it was a catalog. It fostered the underlying themes of the Arts and Crafts Movement as they had evolved in Europe. In essence, Stickley was talking to the masses that were dissatisfied with the industrial way of life at a complex moment in history.
John Ruskin, the chief cultural theorist of the Nineteenth Century, had laid the foundations for the back-to-nature movement. William Morris set the standards for interior design and decorative arts, giving a renewed emphasis to handicrafts. Meanwhile, Josef Hoffmann, Gustav Klimt, Otto Wagner and others were unifying under the Vienna Secessionists’ umbrella. The ideological and design exchanges that resonated across the continent became the hallmarks of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. Spreading haphazardly across America, the movement excited a sort of regional chauvinism. Handcrafted products, such as baskets and colonial-inspired furniture, folk carvings and Ipswich lace, made between 1900 and 1910 were all labeled Arts and Crafts.
Stickley’s pared down contributions, often bordering on the abstract, actually reflected a conglomeration of influences. In his works one can see traces of Japanese style, Swiss chalet, English country furniture and French Art Nouveau. There is also more than a dash of the Flemish sensibility and the Moorish influence. Images of the garden also make an appearance in stands, taborets and small tables.
He used old-growth white oak, then abundant in upstate New York, western Pennsylvania and northern Michigan, because of its richly figured grain. When quartersawn, the wood showed radial lines, a decorative quality with a rather ethereal beauty. The thickness and finishes gave the furnishings durability, while the spare designs hinted at timelessness, the Modernism to come.
Although he utilized the tools of mass production, Stickley was able to overcome the industrialized aversion by providing a remarkably good product. He supervised and guided all the anonymous designers who unified the Craftsman line.
Inherent in each piece were the properties of good proportions, “honest” construction and a rich patina. The “honesty” in the cabinets was supplied by master-craftsman techniques, such as mortise and tenons, butterfly joints and dovetails, beveled edges, chamfered boards, keys, pegs and concealed splines. Steel screws were used sparingly and concealed. The early pieces often had hidden iron brads. To simulate age and mellowness, the wood was fumed with ammonia vapors and then enhanced with color, waxed, sealed and shellacked. All in all, the Craftsman line was a quality product.
Experts cite the years 1901 to 1905 as the highpoint of Stickley’s career. Indeed, Gray’s collection focuses on these seminal years. Originally designed for the turn-of-the-century cottages that were all the rage, the furniture also worked well in older houses, like Gray’s farmhouse, and to some extent the environments of urban style-mongers. Typically, furnishings would have included massive tables enhanced with leather tops, large bookcases, dining tables and sideboards and servers.
The Craftsman ‘s subscribers were complimented for their good taste with promotional copy that recalled the influence of William Morris, who had died in 1898. The cover of the first issue featured a border that had been used by Morris, circa 1860. It was the “Daisy” design. Later, in 1902, a scrolling border, reminiscent of Morris’s “Kelmscott Chaucer,” 1896, made an appearance in the magazine.
Articles and editorials invoked the concept of “medievalism,” a style that marked Morris’s work. Stickley laid out his philosophy for “new” design as well, stating that surface design that was not visibly linked to form and structure should be eliminated. To soften the look, he used hammered copper pulls or straps and handcrafted wrought iron.
As a marketer, Stickley was brilliant. He offered buyers a choice of either “Chalet” or “Bungalow” styles. He named each design. An Art Nouveau-like floriform table was “Poppy,” or “Pansy” or “Sunflower.” Plant stands were “Tokio,” Yeddo” and “Mikado.” The merchandising technique gave Stickley’s first distributor, the Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago, plenty with which to work.
It is generally agreed that later examples of Stickley’s work lost some of this integrity, although, Gray has written that some post-1909 examples are still very compatible with earlier work.
In 1903, Stickley opened a fabric and needlework shop, thus adding accessories as well as domestic and imported textiles to the Craftsman line. That same year, Harvey Ellis, a designer/architect, came aboard. In the seven months they worked together †Ellis died in January 1904 †he contributed six covers and at least 15 illustrated articles to The Craftsman . He also created interior compositions that later designers presented in the magazine for almost another decade.
Working with LaMont Warner, Ellis created an elegant line of inlaid furniture. The improvements provided a way to revitalize the designs. According to Arts and Crafts authority David Cather’s essay in the exhibition catalog, Gustav Stickley at Home , 1900 saw cutout shapes as design enrichments. In 1901-02, visible joinery was promoted as being decorative. In 1903, it became inlay. Each of these components was charged with creating the interplay of “light and shade” that was an essential component in the Stickley sell.
It is clear that Stickley took the notion of “light and shade” from Wesley Arthur Dow, who, in his seminal work, Composition , called it “notan,” professing that “line, color and notan” were the unifying compositional elements visible in all good design. A 1903 Craftsman article campaigned the relevancy of notan “to all forms of domestic art.” It went on to attribute the same relevancy to “the worker in metal, the designer of fabrics, the joiner of furniture, and their kindred craftsmen.”
In 1904, Stickley standardized the furniture line to expedite production. He focused on The Craftsman . Mail order catalogs featuring house plans as well as furniture helped sustain business. By 1905, he had opened offices and a showroom in New York City. The coup de grace came in 1913, when the cabinetmaker-turned-philosopher-turned lifestyle marketer opened a 12-story retail store in New York christened “The Craftsman Building.” Ultimately, Stickley had 50 retail outlets across America.
To see “At Home with Gustav Stickley” is to be immersed in the warm glow of the Arts and Crafts Movement, both figuratively and literally. In addition to the furniture, there is soft lighting from period lamps. Accessories on view are from the finest hands of the times. For instance, there are important woodcut prints by Arthur Wesley Dow, the painter, photographer and printmaker whose greatest talents may have been imparting the sense of style to generations of designers, artisans and educators. Among his most famous students is Georgia O’Keeffe.
Dow spread the Arts and Crafts philosophy of artisan as accomplished doer in all the arts. He supplemented the rules of design as handed down from Morris with his own eclectic tastes for refinement and simplicity. He influenced landscape artists who, though singular in style, each incorporated an appreciation of Asian printmaking into their works. It was felt by the Newcomb potters in New Orleans, who replicated cypress-draped trees and other flora native to the South in their work. It can truly be said that Dow’s students as a collective were responsible for the Arts and Crafts style that evolved in the United States.
Other influencers included the English potter Charles Fergus Binns, whose knowledge of Asian ceramics was gleaned from the 12,000-piece collection his father had amassed for Royal Worcester. One of Binns’s students was Elizabeth Gray Overbeck, who with her sisters founded the Overbeck Pottery in Cambridge City, Ind.
Objects from the Teco (short for TErra COtta) Pottery, including larger pieces such as lamp bases and large vases, are also on view, as are potted works by Marblehead, Walrath, Grueby and the Saturday Evening Girls.
“At Home with Gustav Stickley” runs through January 4. The Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art is at 600 Main Street. For information, visit www.wadsworthatheneum.org or call 860-278-2670.
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