About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Gustav Stickley loved music, especially opera. He was stirred by the beauty of gardens and came to relish working in the soil. He cherished his wife and children, even though the demands of his career often kept them apart. In later life, opening his blue tin of Edgeworth tobacco and filling his corncob pipe, he delighted in telling vivid tales to enraptured grandchildren. But his greatest passion was wood. As his grandson Gustav Stickley III recalled, "He would caress a piece of wood. As burly and as big as he was...when he touched a piece of wood it was like a caress...Even as a boy I could see this". A maker of furniture and decorative household objects and later also a publisher, Stickley (1858-1942) became a central figure of the American Arts and Crafts movement that flourished at the beginning of the twentieth century Members of the movement, which arose in England, were distressed by the era's spreading industrialization and criticized factory goods cheaply produced and superficially decorated with garish machine-made ornament that often masked flimsy construction and inferior wood. To them, the new manufacturing system treated workers as little more than machines themselves. The movement bravely sought to remedy these ills by reviving the handicrafts of earlier times, stressing the value of good workmanship, simple design, and the life-enhancing pleasures of honest hand labor.
In the United States Stickley gathered together many of the movement's shared beliefs and called them the "Craftsman idea." He advocated his version of the Arts and Crafts philosophy in his influential Craftsman magazine beginning in 1901, and in his Craftsman Workshops he produced moderately priced furnishings consistent with its principles and sold them widely. Through his publications and his products, Stickley brought Arts and Crafts ideals into people's daily lives, giving the movement meaning for a large national audience. This has proved to be his unique and lasting achievement.
Compilation copyright © 1999 Archetype Press Text copyright © 1999 David Cathers
Text copyright © 1999 David Cathers
From the Introduction: Gustav Stickley and the Craftmanship of Life
THE CRAFTSMAN IDEA
This was an era of great ferment in the decorative arts, and Stickley felt its irresistible pull. In 1898 he established his own firm, the Gustave Stickley Company (he later dropped the e from his first name), which for the first two years continued to produce revivalist furniture. Stickley had a factory payroll to meet and a family to support, and these responsibilities apparently took priority, he was not yet able to act on the ideas forming in his mind. At the same time he began to experiment with Arts and Crafts design in his shop.
In the summer of 1900 Stickley introduced his first Arts and Crafts furniture to the trade at the Grand Rapids Furniture Exposition. Some of these early designs seem to have been inspired by Charles Rohlfs, the innovative Arts and Crafts furniture designer and maker whose workshop turned our intricately derailed and often exotic pieces expressing his unique and highly personal aesthetic. Other Stickley designs exhibited at this show suggested his awareness of contemporary European trends written about regularly in the international art journals. Stickley's offerings "met with instant favor," reported the trade magazine Furniture Journal, but his firm apparently made only one significant sale at this show. George Clingman, manager of the Tobey Company, a large Chicago retailer, ordered more than eight hundred pieces of Stickley's new furniture and arranged to market it exclusively under the Tobey name. Within a year the dealings between the two men ended in mutual disaffection, but Stickley's career as an Arts and Crafts furniture maker had begun.
By 1901 Stickley's designs had grown more confident and had taken on the robust, structural quality that would characterize Craftsman furniture from then on. That same year, with a staff of writers and editors, he began publication of The Craftsman, a monthly magazine intended to publicize his furniture and spread Arts and Crafts ideals. The first issue, in October 1901, was devoted to William Morris, the second to John Ruskin, and the third to medieval guilds (for a time Stickley publicly referred to his firm as a guild).
Stickley's Craftsman idea, as he defined it in his 1901 catalogue, arose from established Arts and Crafts principles: "...the ideals of honesty of materials, solidity of construction, utility, adaptability to place, and aesthetic effect..." These handicraft-based precepts emphasized plain, functional form, good workmanship, decorative structure, and a respect for natural materials. Stickley applied his newly awakened beliefs to the furniture made in his workshops and, within a few years, to interior design, metalwork, textiles, and the design and construction of houses.
"Honesty of materials." Stickley valued honesty, by which he meant two things. First, the purpose of a piece of furniture should be immediately apparent in its design. He believed, for instance, that a chair should be "first, last and all the time a chair, and not an imitation of a throne, nor an exhibit of snakes and dragons in a wild riot of mis-applied wood carving." Second, the designer and the artisan should appreciate the nature of their materials and create objects that honestly express that nature. For Stickley, like Frank Lloyd Wright, wood was not meant to be molded or bent into elaborate shapes or encased within thick layers of highly polished varnish that obscured its inborn beauty. It should be cut in straight lines to emphasize the dramatic patterns of its grain, its plain surfaces finished to enhance their natural colors and texture.
"Solidity of construction." The careful construction of Craftsman furniture reproached the inferior factory wares of the day. As evidence of his furniture's substantial structure, Stickley created designs that made use of tenon-and-key joints, through-tenons pinned with visible dowels, double dovetails, and other forms of exposed joinery. These emphatic functional joints added visual interest to Stickley's pure, plain forms, while making clear exactly how everything was held together. Here was solid construction made visible, designed to be beautiful.
"Utility." Stickley was an early advocate of what he described as utility. His sturdy, unadorned Craftsman furniture was durable and functional and intended for daily use. It was not designed to be admired solely for its beauty or the status it conferred on its owner.
"Adaptability to place." The word adaptability appears in Stickley's writings again and again, and the idea of harmony was a leading theme of his work. Good taste for the Victorians had meant assembling and mixing a miscellany of exotic objects Stickley sought to replace this kaleidoscopic approach to design with a unified, harmonious whole: the organic, he believed, must replace the eclectic.
"Aesthetic effect." Stickley always wanted his designs to be beautiful. Because he typically worked with plain forms, the aesthetic effects of his furniture relied on honesty, utility, harmony, and frankly revealed structure. The integrity of Craftsman furniture created beauty
Proportion. The heart of Craftsman design, however, is Stickley's mastery of proportion, the relationship of the parts to the whole. The arms of a Craftsman chair, for instance, are placed to ensure the sitter's comfort and brace the frame, but they are also ac the right height and of the right depth, width, thickness, and shape to accord visually with all the other elements of the chair. Stickley adjusted such details with rigorous empirical experimentation on the workshop floor, not according to any prescribed formulas "[E]very model we produce," he wrote, "is studied and tested and modified until. The Craftsman finds it thoroughly satisfactory"
Color. Stickley cared about color as well. Year after year he experimented with finishing methods that would enhance the natural color, grain, and texture of quartersawn American white oak, his favorite cabinet wood. He worked in matte browns, greens, and silver grays, applying wax or a thin coat of shellac to give the wood a soft, lustrous glow. To complement his furniture he created household objects of hand-worked copper or iron. The copper was given a rich warm brown patina, the iron a dull sheen that Stickley called "armor bright," and all the metalwork was hammered by hand to create irregular, light-catching surfaces that brought gleams of color into a room. He also made Craftsman curtains, wall hangings, and table runners with simple, subtly tinted patterns worked on loose-weave fabrics. With wood, metal, and textiles he recreated the colors and textures of nature and brought them into the home.
Stickley's thinking quickly evolved, and he began to move away from the idealization of the handmade object that had become a widely accepted Arts and Crafts belief. He recognized that he could produce wares affordable to a middle-class market only by combining skilled hand craftsmanship with an enlightened harnessing of the power of machines, an idea advocated by The Craftsman as early as 1902. From the first, Stickley's Arts and Crafts furniture, with its straight lines and flat surfaces, had relied to some extent on machine processes, and his public embrace of the machine acknowledged the realities of Craftsman production. A year earlier Frank Lloyd Wright had argued this case in his famous lecture. "The Art and Craft of the Machine," and it seems likely that Wright's thoughts influenced Stickley Yet as he pragmatically accepted shifting Arts and Crafts ideologies and took advantage of improving machine technologies, the Craftsman idea remained a central theme in all that Stickley did.
In time the Craftsman idea grew to include what Stickley defined as the craftsmanship of life -- a mo...