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Gustav Stickley and the American
Arts & Crafts Movement

by Bob Brooke

 


The Arts and Crafts Movement began in Britain in the mid-19th century with John Ruskin, the foremost critic of the factory system. He spoke out against the shoddy quality of machine-made goods. Ruskin believed mass production enslaved workers to machines and robbed them of the pleasure of their own labor. To correct this, he advocated a return to the practices of the medieval trade guilds. To Ruskin, a hand-made object had beauty because of its irregularities.



William Morris founded a firm in 1861 that put Ruskin’s ideas into practice by producing hand-wrought furniture, textiles, wallpapers, and stained glass. He maintained that furniture should be made of timber rather than milled lumber.

Morris expanded the definition of art to include traditional handicrafts and helped launch the Arts and Crafts Movement, style movement governed by social, economic, and political reforms of the early 20th century.

The Arts and Crafts Movement
Gustav Stickley’s furniture was simple, functional, and sturdy, with a decorative effect that depended on its revealed structure. The emphasis on the details of joinery—tenon-and-key joints, exposed tenons, visible dowels— celebrated the handmade nature of Stickley’s furniture while de-emphasizing the machine processes used in its construction.

His furniture gave the appearance of being handmade in the Arts and Crafts tradition, but it actually benefited from the efficiencies of his well-equipped factory.

In the United States, organized efforts to gather artists and Craftsman into societies that would promote the ideals of John Ruskin, William Morris and other European exponents of the art that is life did not occur until then the 1890s. Gustav Stickley was a the forefront of this movement in America.

Stickley visited England and Europe during the late 19th century and clearly benefitted from his exposure to ideas about the unification of all the decorative arts into a new international movement called Arts and Crafts which developed its American programs simultaneously on both coasts during 1896 and1897.

Artist, architects and decorative artists weren’t satisfied with their traditional roles in the new industrial society of 1900. They believe wholeheartedly in the capacity of art to change the political and philosophical situation of modern society. Setting the stage for the socially engaged art of the later 20th-century.

In a major reform many Americans believe that industrialism, which had originally promised to be a boon to American workers, had betrayed them. The machine became the symbol of oppression. Socialism was one answer to the problem. But the American reaction to the machine was a much more conservative program of political progressivism. Progressives wanted regulation rather than control, reform without revolution.

Progressive measures—the secret ballot, direct election of senators, referendum and recall, municipal reform all things we take for granted today–-were aimed at bringing government to the people.

Stickley has been aptly called the founder of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in the United States, for no other figure matched his achievements and influence in so many facets of art and design.

He became known as an innovator in furniture making, ceramics and metalwork. He later moved some of his enterprises to New York City and planned to expand his business empire, opening a department store and publishing books and magazines under the Craftsman brand. He was a tastemaker, a publisher, and a manufacturer.

Most of the products Stickley made were derivative of other English Arts and Crafts prototypes. His large staff and factory designed and fabricated hundreds of Craftsman pieces, from furniture to lighting fixtures.

The social and political dichotomy facing America in 1900 caused increasing tension between the 19th-century agrarian society that had guided the founding fathers in the construction of a new nation and the 20th-century structure of urbanized, industrialized production and a centrally controlled two-party system.

Inspired by the legacy of the 19th-century English design reformers John Ruskin and William Morrs, the Arts and Crafts Movement sought to elevate the notion of “good design” and to promote the revival of craft as art.

Gustav Stickley
Stickley came from rural, small town America. Born in 1858 on a farm near Osceola, Wisconsin, the eldest son of first-generation German immigrants, Barbara & Leopold Stoeckel, who sought a better life as pioneer settlers in the Midwest, he retained throughout his life a belief that the farmer was the ideal American. He pursued this idea even as he moved from the farm into the City of Syracuse where he produced oak tables and chairs that are highly prized today.

Hardworking farmboy experiences in Wisconsin gave him a sense of self-determination. Yet with only a 6th-grade education, he went from a those humble beginnings to meteoric success as a designer and entrepreneur.

Parents separated in 1869 and by 12 had become employed as a stonemason. Doing this, Stickley developed a sense of individuality and self-sufficiency that would serve him in adult life.

First trained as a stone mason, Stickley preferred to work in wood and dreamed of building fine tables and chairs. He learned furniture making at his uncle's chair factory in Lanesboro, Pennsylvania. Traveling to Europe in 1896, he met notable Arts and Crafts designers. The following year he returned to the United States and founded the United Crafts of Eastwood, New York. In 1904, he founded the Craftsman Workshops. The furniture he designed and made was mostly of native American oak. It was of a sturdy-plain design in contrast to the highly decorated late Victorian pieces. Joinery was exposed and upholstery was carried out in canvas and leather (natural materials). It became known as Mission Style. Stickley's designs were exhibited at the prestigious Grand Rapids and Pan American furniture expositions.

His mother took her children to Minnesota where Stickley became apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and began his love affair with wood.

By the time he was 18, the family had relocated to Landsboro, Pa. where his uncle, Jacob Schlager, operated a chair factory. His uncle hired him and he became foreman in a few years.

Stickley became successful and by 1900 operated a thriving furniture manufacturing company in Syracuse, NY. There he met Professor Irene Sargent who was a devotee of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Sargent became Stickley’s mentor and encouraged him to study John Ruskin and William Morris.

During the following decade, Stickley became a spokesman for the Arts and Crafts Movement, publisher of The Craftsman Magazine, and head of a firm that designed homes.

Filled with ambition he moved his offices to New York City and leased a 15-story building in order to show off his furniture. There he offered every type of object for the home. He even ran a restaurant on the top floor of the prestigious Fifth Avenue address.

Although Gustav Stickley advocated the simple life, his own life was not simple. He moved his business (but not his factory) to New York City, where he spent heavily on the new Craftsman Building. The building included “a Permanent Homebuilders’ Exhibit of every sort of building material, with actual demonstrations of their uses” and Stickley promised that “the amateur builder may come here to obtain expert help on any subject.” It was an ambitious project at a time when public taste as changing and the solid, plain Craftsman furniture was falling out of favor. Stickley filed for bankruptcy in March 1915.

Though he lived another 26 years, Stickley's popularity had waned by the end of the Great War.


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