Arts and Crafts: A Movement
Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) was the eldest surviving son of a Midwest immigrant farm family, design leader, publisher and the leading American proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement. This movement was an extension of the British Arts and Crafts movement, which arose in England in the latter part of the 19th century as a reaction to the industrialization of production and to the elaborate excesses of Victorian style.
Stickley learned the furniture business early on, working for his uncle in Brandt, PA. He and his brothers later established a furniture business, Stickley Brothers & Company, in Binghamton, NY. Within five years, the company was dissolved and Stickley’s ambitions led him to partner with Elgin Simonds, a salesman in the furniture trade, to form the firm Stickley & Simonds.
Eventually, Gustav Stickley struck out on his own, inspired by a trip to Europe in 1895-96, where he met leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This trip, during the height of its aesthetic movement, transformed Stickley into a visionary seeking to uplift a growing American middle class through good, affordable furniture and design. In 1898, he orchestrated the removal of his business partner and formed the Gustav Stickley Company.
Stickley's new furniture reflected his ideals of simplicity, honesty in construction, and truth to materials (with mostly native woods). Unadorned, plain surfaces were enlivened by the careful application of colorants so as not to obscure the grain of the wood and mortise and tenon joinery was exposed to emphasize the structural qualities of the works.
Hammered metal hardware, in armor-bright polished iron or patinated copper emphasized the handmade qualities of furniture which was fabricated using both handworking techniques and modern woodworking machinery within Stickley's Eastwood, NY, factory. Dyed leather, canvas, terry cloth and other upholstery materials complemented the designs.
Creating the Ideal Home
In 1901, Stickley published the first issue of The Craftsman magazine, an important vehicle for promoting Arts and Crafts philosophy as well as the products of his factory within the context of articles, reviews, and advertisements for a range of products of interest to the homemaker.
The magazine began featuring house designs regularly in 1904, when it idealized and publicized the idea of the American bungalow. Historically, the bungalow was an idea that came from India - it was a house form with a porch which was first emulated in England and found its way to the U.S. First considered a style of vacation home, it became more accepted as a permanent form of housing at the turn of the century. It became one of the most popular house styles in the U.S. from 1900 to 1920.
When Stickley interpreted his ideas for the American market, it was as a concept designed to improve the life of the middle classes. He focused on the creation of an “ideal home” - inviting, warm, facilitating family togetherness around the hearth, with broad porches for outdoor dining, sitting and sleeping - all designed to bring fresh air, sunshine, health and comfort to the family.
Furthering the development of his concept of the Craftsman home, in late 1903 he announced the formation of the Craftsman Home Builders Club to provide architectural plans from The Craftsman to its subscribers. The homes were offered in a number of archetypes familiar to American public - the farmhouse, town house, cottage, and bungalow, among others.
The plans were created by professional architects and expressed essential features of Craftsman architecture, such as deep eaves, exposed roof beams and rafter ends, extra stick work on gables and porches, straight or tapered porch columns above solid piers or railings, dormers and multiple roof planes. Stickley offered detailed plans of the featured houses free of charge to subscribers, gave free advice to builders, and provided detailed instructions on furniture construction.
In the Craftsman house, first floor woodwork (quarter-sawn oak, chestnut, or other hardwood) was stained. In upper stories, inferior woods such as gumwood were used, and usually painted. The hearth was made of natural, preferably local materials, such as stone or brick, and the main rooms often had built-in bookcases, benches, and cupboards. Often “dark” interiors were counterbalanced by multiple windows and porches to bring in light.
Stickley’s concepts of home embraced a range of decorative elements as well, including lighting (sconces, chandeliers and table lamps), hardware, rugs, linens and fabrics as well as chairs, bookcases, cabinets, tables and other pieces. He designed everything himself.
About 225 craftsmen homes were built based on these plans all over America. New Jersey, close to home in Maplewood, has some wonderful examples. Natural materials and soft colors predominated and interiors were invariably prescribed to include simplified moldings, stained wood, and characteristic features such as built-in cabinets and fireplaces with inglenooks for seating
After moving his headquarters to NYC in 1905, Stickley began to acquire property in 1907 to establish a boarding school for boys in Morris Plains, NJ. Craftsman Farms became Stickley’s 20th century country estate. It was designed to include vegetable gardens, orchards, dairy cows and chickens. The main house is constructed from chestnut logs and stone found on the property. It truly exemplifies Stickley's philosophy of building in harmony with the environment by using natural materials. The 30 park-like acres are now a National Historic Landmark.
As he wrote in The Craftsman:
“There are elements of intrinsic beauty in the simplification of a house built on the log cabin idea. First, there is the bare beauty of the logs themselves with their long lines and firm curves. Then there is the open charm felt of the structural features which are not hidden under plaster and ornament, but are clearly revealed. The quiet rhythmic monotone of the wall of logs fills one with the rustic peace of a secluded nook in the woods.”
Although the main house at Craftsman Farms was initially conceived as a clubhouse for students, lack of interest prompted Stickley to live there with his family instead. The planned school never became a reality. In 1913, at the height of his success, he opened The Craftsman Building on 39th Street in NYC that offered all his merchandise.
Unfortunately, changing tastes and the financial strain of his new 12-story Craftsman Building in Manhattan, began to take their toll. A fickle, post World War I American public turned away in favor of nostalgic design. This American self-made-man, after years of influence, became overextended, and in 1915, he filed for bankruptcy, stopping publication of The Craftsman in 1916 and selling Craftsman Farms in 1917. Gustav Stickley died in 1942.