Times & Places

Art from Industry: The Evolution of Craftsman Furniture

Alongside the highly ornamental, largely conservative chairs which had sustained the firm in the waning years of the 19th century, in July of 1900 the Gustave Stickley Company introduced a line of “New Furniture” designs at the Grand Rapids Furniture Exposition. At the time, few would have expected this collection of startlingly different “furniture novelties” to result in a wholesale shift in the company’s production within the course of the following year. Fewer still might have foreseen the reputation that Gustav Stickley would establish thereafter as one of the leading figures of the American Arts and Crafts movement, alongside individuals such as Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915), the founder of the Roycroft Shops in East Aurora, New York. Unlike the exclusive furnishings produced by noted architects and leading interior design firms of the day, Stickley’s new creations were, from the first, intended to be accessible to the middle-class clientele that he and his competitors in the American furniture industry served at the turn of the 20th century. The appearance of several of these New Furniture pieces, from diminutive, carved floriform and Asian-inspired tables to robust designs evocative of both modern and historic European work, was dramatically different from that of most of his firm’s earlier furniture, but the rationale for their introduction was just as likely driven by entrepreneurial considerations as creative ones. As a businessman who had tentatively explored the production of English-style Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts furniture as early as 1895, Stickley was undoubtedly familiar with the initial efforts in the late 1890s to market new “artistic” and “Mission” furnishings to the American public. Given that Stickley’s designs reflected a variety of fashionable new and old stylistic influences and carried with them an indistinct rationale for their creation, the effort may be likened to that of any furniture manufacturer developing a new line for market. However, what began as a novel effort to seek additional sales continued, through subsequent designs, publishing, and retail efforts, to establish a distinctive identity for his products and encourage a wider market in the United States for Arts and Crafts furnishings. By 1901, with the creation of a proselytizing catalogue, Chips from the Workshops __of Gustave Stickley, the adoption of the symbolically charged “United Crafts” as the firm’s new name and, in October of that year, his publication of the first issue of The Craftsman magazine, Stickley quickly codified his approach to making and selling his furniture, by then stylistically transformed from his previous year’s effort. Establishing the philosophical foundation of his firm’s identity, the Chips catalogue, the work of his new writer and editor Irene Sargent, offered Stickley’s first public statement about the direction of his new efforts with what the author David Cathers describes as “a closely reasoned polemic and an aesthetic manifesto.” Compared with the stylistically diverse range of his New Furniture of th previous year, it also indicated a rapid transformation toward the more unified, structural designs that would come to characterize Stickley’s works in the coming years. From this, the Craftsman aesthetic was born.

Although Stickley and his writers went to great lengths to express the meaning of style as it applied to the furnishings produced in his Eastwood factory after 1900, how this style was realized in these works was at times contradictory and challenging to the concept of craft as defined by the utopian Arts and Crafts societies in Europe and America. For those dedicated to the founding principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, industry was not the means for achieving a “democratic art,” rather it was the cause of the debasement of the decorative arts—and, indeed society. Through tradition and eloquently bolstered through his publishing efforts, Stickley’s modern factory and the furnishings it produced ultimately provided the means to a practical, national expression of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, adapting the artistic legacy of the European movement to the commercial realities of furniture production in the early 20th century.

Adapted from

David Cathers, "'The Moment'—Gustav Stickley from 1898 to 1990," in Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, ed. Kevin Tucker (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2010), 20.

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