Gustav Stickley

In my last couple of articles, I went on at some length about plywood, its use in furniture and how Charles Eames and his wife, Ray, were designing stylish furniture that could be produced en mass and inexpensively.  Today we’re looking at the flip side of that coin, the American craftsman movement and we’ll chat a little about what it was trying to do.

Sometimes known as the arts and crafts movement or mission oak, the American craftsman movement originated in the designs of Gustav Stickley.  Stickley was born in Osceola, Wisconsin, in 1858 and teamed up with architect Harvey Ellis to publish house plans in The Craftsman in 1901.  This style was characterized by “…a severely plain and rectilinear style which was visually enriched only by expressed structural features and the warm tones of the wood…”.  Like everything else, it is easier to see than to explain.

The Craftsman concentrated on home design, publishing 221 house plans over its 15 year run.  You can see many of the craftsman elements in homes built by Frank Lloyd Wright.  They incorporate open floor plans, use local materials whenever possible, have exposed structural elements like beams and light fixtures and use lots of natural light.

Although he started making chairs in Wisconsin in 1875, Stickley really began his style in 1904 after he moved to Syracuse, New York.  All his furniture was handmade, built mostly from oak, the joinery was exposed and upholstery used only natural materials like canvas and leather.  His wood was varnished but never painted.  He was so fond of the look of quarter-sawn oak that he built posts out of 4 pieces of wood so you could see the flecks in the grain on all four sides.

Despite, or because of, the singularity of his vision, he was not a particularly successful businessman.  By 1913, his company was losing money.  It went bankrupt in 1915, by 1916 The Craftsman folded and he sold his signature house a year later. Stickley retired from the furniture business and died in 1942.

So much for the facts, why is craftsman style important and why did it become so wildly popular again?  The inventions of the 1860’s which led to the industrial revolution of the 1880’s began to mass produce ornate products for the masses.  Stickley was a retrograde movement, an offshoot of the “return to nature and simplicity” utopianism of that time.  That he should make a product that folks didn’t really want (they preferred something more ornate, something that emulated what the wealthy owned) and a product that they couldn’t afford is why he failed as a businessman.

I think that craftsman style became popular again in the 1980s and 1990s for the same reasons.  It was a return to simplicity as life became (and becomes) more and more complex and as we become more removed from the means of production.  You can judge the renewed popularity of this style in the magazines American Bungalow and Style 1900.

In an age when almost anything can be cheaply mass produced, there is a renewed appreciation for the hand crafted items of yore.  Artisan bread companies are another great example of this trend.  And people will pay dearly to get piece of the pastoral past.  In 1988, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 for a Stickley sideboard.

So, how can you recognize a real Stickley piece?  There should be the original maker’s mark, usually in red or black and in an inconspicuous place.  Second in value to Gustav’s work was L & JG Stickley Furniture Company (made by his brothers Leopold and John George) but there was also the Stickly Borthers (Albert) and Stickley and Brandt (Charles) and another dozen companies making furniture in the Stickley style.  I think it takes a true professional to spot a real Stickley.

The next time you see this style of furniture in a big box store, appreciate that it was intended to be both art and craft, a handmade thing in a time of machines.

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