In Focus

Linen Chest

"The sole consideration at the basis of the design must be the thing itself and not its ornamentation. It must be a chair, a table, a bookcase or a bed that fills its mission of usefulness as well as it possibly can; it must be well-proportioned and honestly constructed, as beautifully finished as possible for the wood of which it is made, and as stable, commodious, or comfortable as would be required in a perfect thing of its kind."

—Chips from the Craftsman Workshops, 1906

Following his presentations in Grand Rapids and Buffalo in 1901, Gustav Stickley developed plans for an Arts and Crafts exhibition to be hosted in his Syracuse headquarters from March 23 to April 4, 1903. Included was a model dining room, “furnished and arranged by Gustav Stickley,” featuring several works created expressly for the exhibition. By all accounts, the installation was successful and well-received in contemporary newspapers and journals, including the May 1903 issue of The Craftsman in which Stickley’s United Crafts furniture was described by the editor Irene Sargent:

The furniture was in fumed oak of the rich, deep-toned brown seen in the “weathered wood” of old musical instruments, in Dutch and Flemish carvings and in Rembrandt’s pictures. The pieces were a sideboard, a linen chest, screens, a table and chairs; all fine representatives of the simple, structural style of the Stickley designs. The sideboard especially attracted the attention of visitors, and was judged to be one of the best pieces as yet built in the workshops of the United Crafts. It was long and low; massive, and yet refined in line; decorated only with wrought-iron fittings consisting of strap hinges and drawer-pulls. The linen-chest matched it, in wood and metalwork, resembling it also in constructive treatment.

After the exhibition, Stickley moved several of the works, including the sideboard and corner cabinet, to a similar presentation at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester but, for reasons unknown, not this linen chest. Although the furniture was offered for sale and some pieces were sold, prices for these custom works were higher than those for Stickley’s comparable, but somewhat less substantial, production pieces—the sideboard, similar to one made earlier for Stickley’s Syracuse home, the most expensive item at $170. According to the descendants of its original owner, the linen chest was purchased in New York City at the Craftsman Building around 1914, suggesting that its high cost may have been a deterrent for an earlier sale or simply that the piece was retained by Stickley and his staff for other reasons.

With its highly architectonic form, substantial hardware, and quartersawn white oak construction, this unusual chest stands as the culmination of Stickley’s structural style developed between 1901 and 1902. Echoing the twin door and lower drawer configuration of a design for a production model chest of drawers (No. 614) of 1902, the chest is distinguished by its tightly resolved form bound around the sides of the cabinet with large strap hinges, which are mirrored at its base by prominent iron corner brackets. Unlike those of related production pieces, the top edges of the linen chest retain their blunt profile, relieved only by gently radiused corners. Below this, massive strap hinges set on twin doors of vertical board construction suggest, in their insistent secureness, shuttered fortress doors. In such elaborated hardware schemes, Stickley’s designers, including LaMont Warner, drew heavily from English sources including the work of the designer Edgar Wood (1860–1935), whose similarly configured chest of drawers was published in the December 1898 issue of The House Beautiful. _The scalloped hinge design, shared by a companion corner cupboard, creates a repeated horizontal rhythm that, unlike Stickley’s usual spear- or arrow-tipped strap-hinge forms, continues without an obvious terminus. The lever set and bails, shared by only a select few works, including an earlier variant production sideboard owned by LaMont Warner, were published in dimensioned drawings in the May 1903 issue of _The Craftsman, encouraging the amateur metalworker to be inspired by their design.

Intriguingly, this linen chest and its companion, the corner cupboard, are the only two examples of Stickley’s furniture known to include (along with the identifying decal of Stickley’s firm) the discreetly stamped mark: J. Seidemann. Although the name Seidemann does not appear in extant ledgers of Stickley employees, a German émigré by the name of John Seidemann was working in Syracuse as a cabinetmaker when these works were made, a coincidence strongly suggesting that Seidemann was commissioned by Stickley to create all, or at least some, of the works exhibited in the 1903 model dining room. The construction of both the linen chest and corner cupboard is exceptionally workmanlike; but neither design is beyond the skills of an accomplished cabinetmaker, presumably including those employed at Stickley’s factory in late 1902. Why Stickley apparently turned to a third party to execute these particular works is unclear, but in any regard, the linen chest and its companion corner cupboard remain as extraordinary examples of furniture that fully embodies Stickley’s ideal of the triumph of structural boldness and “massive simplicity” over superficial ornamentation.

Excerpt from

Kevin Tucker, Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010), 132-135.

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