Gustav Stickley and the Craftsman Home

Jan 12, 2006

“Lifestyle” is a concept that seems very late-20th century, but the work of Gustav Stickley, architect, furniture designer and manufacturer, publisher and social critic in the early 20th century, clearly strove to encompass and influence many aspects of life and living.

A slide lecture on the work of Gustav Stickley will be presented on Sunday, Jan. 22 by Peter Copeland, who lives in one of two Stickley-designed houses in Maplewood. He will speak at the Durand-Hedden House at 1:30 and 3:00 pm. Mr. Copeland has been a Stickley collector and historian for many years, and owns The Parchment Press, publishers of twenty-two titles on the American Arts & Crafts Movement, including six books about Gustav Stickley and his work.

“My first exposure to Stickley furniture was a rocking chair that I found at a garage sale,” Mr. Copeland said. “Its straight lines and sound construction appealed to me.”

Stickley was the leading American proponent of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which arose in England in the latter part of the 19th century. William Morris and others conceived of the Arts & Crafts Movement as a reaction to the industrialization of production and to the elaborate clutter of Victorian style. The Movement celebrated individual craftsmanship and a cohesive approach to architecture and design.

Gustav Stickley learned the furniture business early on, working for his uncle in Brandt, Pennsylvania. He and his brothers later established a furniture business in Binghamton, New York. Eventually, Gustav Stickley struck out on his own, inspired by a trip to Europe in 1895-96, where he was met leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Stickley returned to the United States determined to interpret their ideas in a uniquely American way.

Creating the Ideal Home

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.

In 1901, Stickley began to publish a popular magazine called The Craftsman, in which he propounded his lifestyle philosophy, exemplified in sturdy, clean-lined furniture and house designs. The magazine began featuring house designs regularly in 1904.

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.

Craftsman Farms

In 1908, he bought property in Parsippany to create Craftsman Farms, a compound dedicated to the expression of the Craftsman ideals. He completed it by 1911. (It is now the Craftsman Museum, open April through November and weekends in December).

In 1913, at the height of his success, he opened The Craftsman Building on 39th Street in New York City that offered all his merchandise. However, he was soon overextended and went bankrupt in 1915, eventually losing both his home at Craftsman Farms and his business. He then joined his brothers Leopold and John George in manufacturing “Stickley” furniture in the name of another company. Gustav Stickley and his work were largely forgotten by the 1930s, and he died in obscurity in 1942.

After furniture in the Arts and Crafts style lost popularity in the 1920s, the L. & J.G. Stickley Company expanded its furniture offerings to include American Colonial and other period styles, enabling it to remain in business. In 1972, an exhibition at the Princeton Art Museum reignited interest in the style. In the 1980s, the E.J. Audi furniture company, capitalizing on this renewed interest, bought the remaining Stickley furniture business and once again began to offer classic Craftsman furniture.

Although the term “Craftsman” properly belongs only to the work of Gustav Stickley, there were parallel expressions of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic across the United States, including Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, Spanish Mission in the Southwest, and California Arts & Crafts epitomized by the architects Greene and Greene.

The most popular house style that grew out of this movement was the American Bungalow, which was the most popular house style in the U.S. from 1900 to 1920. The bungalow, with a low, sweeping roofline extending over a front porch, and one or two dormers above, is fairly common in Maplewood and South Orange.

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