Gustav Stickley: the American Arts & Crafts Movement

Retrospect

The progenitor of Craftsman Style, Gustav Stickley was largely responsible for spreading the ideas and aesthetics espoused by British design reformers and craftsmen around the turn of the 20th century, and his designs are still in production today. Let’s take a look at this visionary designer, the characteristics of the Stickley style, and the Craftsman legacy.

Gustav Stickley was born in Wisconsin in 1858, the eldest of 11 children born to German immigrants named Stoeckel. He began making wood furniture at his uncle’s chair factory in Pennsylvania, where Stickley’s work initially fit into the industrially produced Victorian style, with lots of historicizing ornament and shimmery veneers.

In the late 19th century, the first design journals were printed, facilitating the transmission of ideas and aesthetics. Periodicals like The Studio and Pan disseminated the work of the British Arts & Crafts movement and other design reformers. Once Stickley became acquainted with the philosophy of John Ruskin and William Morris, his own practice changed dramatically. He believed that Industrialization had led to poorly designed products made using shoddy mechanical production. Instead, he advocated a return to a simple, vernacular aesthetic that exploited the natural beauty of pure materials, and that depended on the skill and acuity of the craftsman.

In 1898 Stickley traveled to Britain, visiting Arts & Crafts practitioners. In 1900, he founded the Craftsman Workshops in upstate New York, and the following year began publishing The Craftsman, a journal whose first two issues were devoted to the ideas of Ruskin and Morris (image 3). Subsequently, Stickley used the journal as a platform for his own philosophies about design as well as examples of his work, including his now-famous Craftsman houses.

Stickley’s style clearly shows the impact of William Morris and the British design reformers, who embraced a simple, “honest” and modest style. Stickley’s pieces were made of unvarnished wood — mostly local oak, which was considered a sturdy and “honest” wood by the Arts & Crafts movement. There was typically no applied decoration other than hammered copper hinges and hardware, the form of the piece relating directly to its function. The construction of each piece was clearly articulated — joinery and fittings were always revealed, which the design reformers saw as an important part of honesty and soundness of design.

Stickley often lightened the blocky masses of his furniture by using repeated vertical slats (images 5 & 13) that were usually the only ornamentation. This construction reveals his debt to the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, and the Wiener Werkstätte (including Josef Hoffmann) in Vienna, whose styles were also dependent on attenuated verticals for drama. Other characteristics of Stickley furniture include nailhead upholstery trim (again, combining form with function), the use of copper, leather and ceramic tile in addition to solid wood, and earthy colors like moss green, reddish-brown and mustard.

Stickley strayed a bit from the Arts & Crafts orthodoxy, producing his designs in commercially competitive factories with the help of machines. But his commitment to modest, honest wood furniture with a crafts-based approach, combined with his belief (to some extent) in the rights and education of his workers, still allow him to be part of the club. At the dawn of World War I, with a slicker, more modern style just around the corner, Stickley’s Craftsman aesthetic was outdated enough that he had to declare bankruptcy. But the style never really went away, visible in the bungalow aesthetic of the '30s and the post-war cottages of the '50s. Today, Craftsman houses are as popular as ever.

Stickley's legacy is evident in the continuing popularity of the Craftsman style of furniture and homes. His journal, The Craftsman, published until 1916, is considered the main source for Arts & Crafts style in America during the first part of the 20th century, and it popularized the Stickley style and Craftsman aesthetic. Today, his pieces are appealing in their solidity, their reference to traditional form and craft, and their simple union of form and function.

If you want to know more about Gustav Stickley, the place to go is New Jersey, where you can visit the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, and see a Stickley exhibition at the Newark Museum between September 15, 2010 to January 2, 2011. For more information about Craftsman homes, check out Geoff's piece from a few months ago. You can shop for Stickley furniture today at Stickley.com.

Images: 1, 10 & 15 Nibs Blog; 2 The Curated Object; 3 The Arts & Crafts Society;
4 Sotheby's; 5 Museum of Modern Art; 6 V & A Prints; 7 V & A Prints; 8 Sotheby's;
9 Christie's; 11 Sotheby's; 12 Metropolitan Museum of Art; 13 Christie's;
14 CraftedPhiladelphia.com.