Arts & Crafts Forever

More than 100 years ago, Gustav Stickley began creating well-made wood furniture with a simplicity of design. The creation of a brand soon followed, with Stickley offering everything from candlesticks and linens to a magazine that included home plans in his Craftsman style.

The first national touring exhibit to give acomprehensive look at Stickley’s work, with the majority of pieces on display coming from private collections, closed Jan. 2 at the Newark Museum but travels to the Dallas Museum of Art on Feb. 13 and then to the San Diego Museum of Art  on June 18. The show features more than 100 works, including furniture, metalwork, textiles and architectural drawings.

Gustav Stickley — designer, visionary and businessman — based his furnishings on American archetypes of the farmhouse, the cottage and the bungalow. He was born in Osceola, Wisc., on a small farm, and did without an education to help the family get by. He moved to Pennsylvania to help in his uncle’s chair factory and his industrious nature led him to partner with his brothers, establishing Stickley Bros. & Co. in 1883.

His success was due to his “obedience to public demand” in the production of adaptations of historical styles: Colonial Revival, Shaker and Japanese bamboo furniture. After a trip to England, he recognized the American interest in artistic furnishings and started The Craftsman magazine not only to promote his work but to explore topics on art, literature, politics, urban planning, philosophy and historical and cultural topics, along with the latest in do-it-yourself crafts. It was the gesamtkunstwerk — the total work of art — that made the Stickley business. He was the Martha Stewart of his day.

His workshops were recognized as much for their quality as for their ability to produce thousands of works each year. Inspired by the work of English reformer William Morris, Americans were celebrating handmade objects and had aspirations to transform the lives of workers through social and economic changes.

Quartersawn oak, sometimes fumed a rich, deep-toned brown, was his favorite wood, but he also used ash, cherry, mahogany, elm and maple, preferring native woods over exotics. He eschewed carved ornament and places greater emphasis on constructive elements such as visible joinery and boldly proportioned hardware.

“Morris Chair” and “Mission,” terms commonly used to describe his work, were terms despised by Stickley, who preferred “Craftsman.” But for all his romantic evocation of artisans and craftsmen at work, Stickly built a thoroughly modern factory and embraced modern production practices.

By the 1920s, his furnishings were falling out of favor. As Arts & Crafts became popular, competitors made crude imitations they could sell more cheaply. Stickley’s response was to build a 12-story department store — sort of like the ABC Carpet or Ikea of its day — to sell not only his furnishings but everything from fabrics to garden supplies and many objects in ornamental styles antithetical to his principles of simplicity and function. The company declared bankruptcy in 1916, and publication of The Craftsman ceased.

Rediscovered in the 60s and returned to prominence in the 80s, scholars recognized his carefully considered principles of function, proportion, materials and construction, a precursor to modernism, which glorified the possibilities of the city and the machine. The Arts & Crafts movement, with its romance of the country and nature, represented a yearning for simpler times.

In 1908, Stickly acquired 650 acres near Morris Plains to construct a home and a school to revive the practical and profitable handicrafts in connection with small farming, but the experiment failed to draw students. Constructed with stained chestnut logs, the house was an expression of the Arts & Crafts aesthetic, and Stickley and his family lived in it for a few years before declaring bankruptcy and having to sell it. Today the site in Parsippany is a National Historic Landmark and is open as the Stickly Museum at Craftsman Farms.

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