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.

Plywood Furniture

One nice thing about a newspaper column is that no matter how stultifyingly dull your writing, you never get to see the glazed-over eyes of your audience, or hear the soft snores escaping from their lips.  In our last column, we talked about the history of plywood in the US.  This time we’ll talk about plywood furniture.

But first, I’ve touted plywood as a marvel of engineering, an untold market for softwood and an opportunity to conserve our natural resources.  So, you might ask (you curious devil you), how much wood do we cut in the US? Thanks to my good buddies at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, WI, I can tell you that in 2002, we cut 48 billion board feet of lumber. If I did the math correctly, that’ll let you build a walkway 1 foot wide to the moon and back…19 times.  Out of this, we made 15.2 billion square feet of softwood plywood (and another 2.9 billion square feet of hardwood plywood).

But on to the topic at hand, plywood furniture.  In some ways, plywood furniture is almost the prototypical mid-century modern furniture.  It’s the stuff we think about in those crazy 1950’s space age bachelor pads.  But actually, it goes back before the first plywood patent, when a German émigré John Henry Belter started making it.  He heated the plywood so he could bend it in 3 directions and he could make 8 pieces of furniture at the same time.

As we noted before, plywood really came into its own in World War I and designers started to realize what they could do with a cheap, flexible product.  They were especially interested in finding ways to mass-produce furniture, in the same way that Ford made cars.

The first chair with a seat made from a single piece of plywood was the 1927 chair designed by Gerrit Thomas Rieveld, a Dutch cabinet maker.  In 1933, the Finn Alvar Aalto made the first “resilient”, i.e. springy, chair where both the seat and the frame came from plywood.  Marcel Breuer and Jack Pritchard wanted to make chairs out of aluminum and tubular steel, but the shortage of these products in English 1930’s wartime, led them to use plywood.  Well, that and the fact that Jack “Plywood” Pritchard owned a plywood factory.

All of this was part of the Bauhaus art movement.  Influenced by post-war modernism, and abstract art, these designers were looking for simple, stylish products that could be used by the masses.  The Volkswagen, for instance, which translates literally as “peoples car”.  Coco Chanel a la K-mart.

This means the products had to be practical, as well as artistic.  So although Eero Saarinen and most notably Charles Eames won awards for the designs of their furniture, they were also inexpensive to build and hence became wildly popular.  Their first work was created when they were students at Cranbrook in Michigan but winning the Home Furnishings Competition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, really made their name.  Eames was quite a character, smuggling wood and glue into his Los Angeles apartment while working his day job at a movie studio.  He even made splints out of plywood for the US Navy based on the shape of his own leg.

For cheap “peoples” furniture, plywood has fallen out of favor to the even cheaper plastics which could (and can) be molded into any shape conceivable (and a few inconceivable).

But for my tastes, there is something warm, inviting and fun about a plywood chair.  Maybe I’ll go sit in one while you sit there and snore.  It’s OK, I can read US Timber Production, Trade, Consumption and Price Statistics 1965-2002 while I wait.

Got ideas for something you’d like to know about?  Drop me a line at ken@olyfurnitureworks.com.

History of Plywood

Perhaps because I have them so rarely, I love a good idea.  And if that idea is cost-effective, saves natural resources and has a Pacific Northwest twist, well honey, we got us a trifecta.  Hunker down, kids, we’re talking…plywood.

Laminating thin pieces of wood together have been found in pharaoh’s tombs, in China a thousand years ago and in French and English furniture of the 17th and 18th centuries.  But in a move prescient of our current laws on intellectual property, John Mayo of New York was issued the first patent for plywood in 1865.  Even though there’s no evidence he ever made anything out of plywood, he renewed the patent in 1868.

And so things sat until 1905, when Portland, Oregon, hosted the World’s Fair as part of the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  With a dearth of interesting things to see, local businesses were asked to prepare exhibits and Gustav Carlson from the Portland Manufacturing Company used paint brushes to spread the glue and made up several door panels out of plywood.  That door panels should create considerable interest among fair goers implies a stunningly boring World’s Fair.  But their practicality was their main selling point and by 1907 the company had installed an automatic glue spreader and was making 420 panels a day.

It took the selling skills of Gus Bartells of Elliot Bay Plywood in Seattle to move to the next step, talking car manufacturers into using plywood for their running boards.  All the more remarkable because the glue wasn’t waterproof, which is why car manufacturers switched to metal running boards. By 1929, however, there were 17 plywood mills in the Pacific Northwest and production was 358 million square feet.

Dr. James Nevin, a chemist at Harbor Plywood Corporation in Aberdeen, developed the first fully waterproof adhesive which opened up new markets for plywood.  Unfortunately, there were no standards in the industry and product quality and grading techniques varied widely from shop to shop.

Trying to protect their industry from standards emerging under the National Recovery Act, industry leaders met in Portland on May 17, 1933, to adopt the first trade practices for plywood production.  Contentiousness was overcome within a month and the Douglas Fir Plywood Association held its first meeting in Tacoma on June 13, 1933.  In 1938, laws were amended to permit registration of industry wide trademarks and the FHA accepted the standards for both interior and exterior plywood, converting a specialty product into a commodity.

More than a million homes were constructed “Dri-Bilt with Plywood”, showing that the public accepted both the product and a misspelled slogan. War was good business for plywood and the 30 war-time mills produced between 1.2 and 1.8 billion square feet annually. These made plywood barracks, plywood PT boats, plywood gliders for the Air Force, plywood crates for machinery parts and plywood huts for the Seabees in the South Pacific.

By 1954, 101 mills were producing 4 billion square feet of the stuff and production skyrocketed to 7.8 square feet in 5 years.  By 1975, production was 16 billion square feet, more than double what had been forecast 20 years before.

As you know, plywood’s strength comes from the alternating grain of the layers of veneer. It is also remarkable because it allows the use of softer and more plentiful woods like fir and pine to be used in products that formerly called for hardwoods.  Its efficiency was enhanced in the late 1970’s with the introduction of oriented strand board or OSB.  Instead of solid sheets of veneer, OSB uses small wood strands glued together in cross-laminated layers.

And there you have it, just like a 1950’s elementary school filmstrip, “Plywood Through the Ages”, and every bit as interesting, I’ll bet.  Next time we’ll really run this into the ground by talking about the use of plywood in furniture design.