Gustav Stickley and his furniture company were a complex and paradoxical lot. Stickley was a design icon, yet no drawings or work-notes in his hand seem to have survived (although the work of a number of nameless designers for his company does survive). He was a moderate socialist, and an aggressive businessman. He glorified individual effort, yet practiced division of labor in his factory. He preached plain, honest design and joinery, yet often he used decoration and always used multi-stage finishes. Finally, Stickley, the apostle of craftsmanship, was not a stickler when it came to joinery.
Yet, whomever Gus Stickley was and however he did it, his “new” furniture, the Craftsman-style furniture, is still fresh, exciting and compelling, a century after he went bankrupt and left the business. The Dallas Museum of Art (called the DMA in the art world) currently has a major exhibit of Stickley artifacts, including furniture, lighting, textiles and some intriguing extras. I plan to go back for a third visit – the first was for fun, the second to get photos for this article, and the third will be for closer study. The show closes on May 8, 2011.
The exhibit has its own internal logic, but for a blog like this it might be more fun to start with a look at Stickley furniture the way Gustav himself thought it should be used. The Craftsman dining room pictured here is the whole deal, furniture, carpet, walls and all. It was laid out by Stickley as a display at a sales promotional event.
That dining room was a glimpse of Stickley as we think of him now. His beginnings were far from that point. Originally he made heavy, ornate late-Victorian factory furniture like most other makers at the time. Mercifully none of that is on display at the DMA.
At some point, two things seem to have converged in Stickley’s mind. First of all he needed to come up with a product line that would give his company a commercial advantage. Secondly, he fell under the spell of John Ruskin, William Morris and the English Arts & Crafts movement. Consequently, he started moving into what he called “new” furniture, although later he used and trademarked the name “Craftsman,” and published a magazine called The Craftsman.
Perhaps wary of the shock of the new, and especially of a shock to his business, Stickley eased into the change. Early designs were simplified by Victorian standards, but had a rather art nouveau look to them. One that just riveted me was the very poppy table for which Robert Lang designed the plans for Popular Woodworking Magazine in 2007. I bought those plans with the idea of making a pair of the tables. But the real thing is different. It is oak, not mahogany. More important, remember what I said about Stickley not always being a stickler? Have a look at the underside of the top. Lang had an elegant solution. Stickley himself used simple glue blocks and a chamfered board screwed across the grain, apparently to prevent warping. Lang guessed from the photo he had seen that the lower shelf was screwed to the legs. The darkening of the oak over the dowel plugs in the table on display suggests that Lang was right and the tannins in the oak are reacting with the iron in the screws.
By the way, in addition to the poppy table, Stickley also offered essentially the same table using other flower patterns for the tops and shelves.
Finishes are one thing we know for sure Stickley had a personal hand in developing. The concepts evolved over time. Early printed material refers to a greenish tone that we rarely see in surviving examples – that is, until this exhibit put out some examples that must have been hidden in a sheltered and very dim place. My photo is not the best, but maybe the light green notes in the overall tan color will come through on your screen. The reason this is so rare, is that 100 years of light and oxidation have changed most of the furniture with this finish to a different color. Admire those visually and physically strong pinned through-tenons while we are looking at this table.
To get a glimpse of what went into development of a simple Craftsman-style finish, look at this picture of the man’s own chest of drawers from the room where he lived with his daughter after his financial collapse. This drawer bottom is one of two on display, on which he was experimenting to find a new finish that would have commercial possibilities. Some of the materials have been identified: gypsum, wax, shellac, starch, plaster of Paris, black dye, red dye and gum benzoic.
Stickley moved over time toward the spare un-ornamented style identified with his name. However, the extent to which his furniture line (as opposed to individual pieces or suites) never really abandoned decoration is almost surprising. Look at the pewter and copper inlay in this chair and writing desk. Is this screen something that would make you sit up and say, “Stickley?” Even the graceful mass of this masterwork of a sideboard is unquestionably ornamented with its black iron hardware.
There is a great deal more in the exhibit to explore. Here is a link to the web site: http://www.dm-art.org/View/Stickley/index.htm
Here’s a little extra fun. The museum is hosting an online DIY Stickley project . The idea is to use a known Stickley work as a starting point, then develop something new using his design principals. You’re invited to post pictures or videos of your project on the museum’s web space and discuss it online. Here is a link:http://dallasmuseumofart.org/View/Stickley/dma_339079.
— Joseph Sullivan
Arts & Crafts Resources in Our Store
• Robert W. Lang has written many of our favorite books on Arts & Crafts, which is one of the reasons we hired him. Check out: “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture” and “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Interiors.”
• “Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Furniture” by Bruce Johnson is also excellent.
• “Stickley Style” by David Cathers.