The furniture designs of Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), with their emphasis on workmanship, functionalism and a frank expression of underlying structure, epitomize the best of the Arts & Crafts movement in America. The oldest of six brothers born in Osceola, Wisc., Stickley was trained by his father as a stonemason. As a young man, however, he found himself making chairs for an uncle in Brandt, Pa. All of the Stickley brothers devoted themselves to making furniture, and several separate companies were established for what became known as Craftsman or Mission furniture. An oak settle with broad planar arms by Stickley is currently on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Stickley was introduced to Arts & Crafts principles through the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris. After a pilgrimage to England, he organized his workshop on the precepts of the medieval guild, borrowing from Morris the Flemish motto, Als ik kan (As best I can), which became his shopmark. Members of the Arts & Crafts movement 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 hard 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 & 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. Stickley's idea, as he defined it, arose from established Arts & Crafts principles: "The ideals of honesty of materials, solidity of construction, utility, adaptability to place and esthetic 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 Craftsman Workshops in Syracuse, and within a few years, to interior design, metalwork, textiles and the design and construction of houses.
Stickley showed a major selection of his new furniture at the Pan-American International Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, sharing space with the Grueby Faience Company of Boston. He attracted some admirable talents as collaborators, chiefly the designer Harvey Ellis, who designed a line of inlaid furniture for Stickley before their association was cut short by Ellis's death in January 1904. Quite possibly at the suggestion of Ellis, Stickley established the Craftsman Home-Builders' Club in late 1903. Thereafter, monthly suggestions for simple, tasteful houses were featured in the magazine, with plans and specifications available on request.
Stickley's Craftsman enterprises achieved considerable success, and by 1902 his factory employed about 200 workers. That year he completely remodeled much of the interior of a well-known Syracuse structure, the lavish Crouse Stables, and dubbed it the Craftsman Building. Here he had exhibition space for Craftsman wares as well as his business and editorial offices, a lecture hall, his design department and in an adjacent single-story building, his new metal workshop.
After the turn of the century, activity intensified in upper New York state. In this land of Chautauquan movement, there were several other individuals and groups whose names stand for many of the finest accomplishments in the American Arts & Crafts movement, best-known among them being Elbert Hubbard and his Roycroft community in East Aurora.
A Stickley empire was obviously in the making, and in 1905 his editorial and executive operations were moved to New York City, the workshops remaining in Syracuse. As if to compensate for his removal from the scene of his most important activity, furniture-making, he purchased land near Morris Plains, N.J., where a crafts colony, with a school and a demonstration farm, was planned but only partially realized.
Meanwhile, Craftsman furniture had become popular across the country, and franchises existed from Boston to Los Angeles. In 1913 he leased a newly completed 12-story office tower in Manhattan, and opened it as the Craftsman Building, which encompassed eight floors of retail space, two floors of offices, a floor for club rooms, a library, a lecture hall and the Craftsman Restaurant at the top. But the move proved overly ambitious and unluckily timed.
The popularity of Stickley's Craftsman wares began to decline, and the qualities that had once made them so appealing -- their frank composition, hand-wrought surface textures, and muted brown and green earth tones -- now looked a little dated as popular modern tastes shifted toward bright colors and formal design. Caught between the high fixed costs of the Craftsman Building in New York City and failing retail sales, Stickley's firm was forced into bankruptcy in April 1915.
In the years following the bankruptcy he worked briefly with his brothers as a vice president of their amalgamated manufacturing firm, Stickley Associated Cabinetmakers, and then tried unsuccessfully to introduce several new lines of furniture. Some of his designs vaguely suggested 18th-century forms, while others featured bright new colors as an alternative to the consistent production of oak that had made Stickley famous. Shock and disillusionment left him powerless to make a comeback of any kind, and he died quite forgotten in 1942.
The advent of modernism, and with it the change in public taste, had brought the popularity of Stickley's design ideals to an end. By the time of his death during World War II, his designs were considered irrelevant and without worth. Yet, a prediction he made during his Craftsman years has turned out to be true: "Oak furniture that shows plainly what it is and in which the design and construction harmonize with the wood will in time become valuable, and will be treasured as heirlooms in this country."
Ironically, though his lifelong concern for craftsmanship, solid construction and truth to materials ties Stickley to the Arts & Crafts Movement of the 19th century, his emphasis on functionalism and purity of form anticipate the International Style of the 1920s, making him a pioneer of 20th-century modern design.