“Gustav Stickley” in the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement                 Arts & Crafts - Table of Contents

   ....... Brief History of the Arts and Crafts (Craftsman) Movement

Gustav Stickley

Gustav Stickley created the first truly American furniture, known throughout the world as Craftsman. A hardworking, dedicated man, Stickley achieved success in the early 1900s as the leader of the Arts & Crafts Movement in America.

Gustav Stickley (originally Gustave, with an e ) was born on March 9, 1858, to German immigrant parents. He went to work while still a child, earning his journeyman's license in stonemasonry at the age of 12. When his father deserted the family in the 1870's, Gustav, the eldest child in a large family, became their sole support.

In 1875, he was given a job in his uncle's chair factory, where he soon realized that this -- working in wood -- was what he was meant to do. And so, in 1884, he left his uncle's employ along with his younger brothers, Charles and Albert, to start his own retail and wholesale furniture business, the Stickley Furniture Company, in Binghamton, New York.

After a trip to England in 1898 Stickley was inspired by British reformers, John Ruskin and William Morris, to create a new line of handcrafted furniture based on honesty and simplicity.

In 1899, at the age of 41, he formed the Gustav Stickley Company, from which his Craftsman line of furniture would be born. Eventually a host of additional household furnishings were produced and sold through Stickley's catalogues, including lighting fixtures, textiles, metalware, and leather work, all given the name Craftsman, in an effort to create an entire decorative environment

His trip to the 1900 Paris Exhibition confirmed his bias against reproductions. While taking his philosophical inspiration from the Arts & Crafts European movement, Stickley took his artistic inspiration from America.

Not only did he design furniture, but homes as well. And to showcase his designs he began publishing his own monthly guide to better living. In October 1901, he began publication of The Craftsman. The first issue dedicated to William Morris (2011), and the second issue dedicated to John Ruskin. Each month, Craftsman would feature furniture and architectural plans for the ideal craftsman life. The publication became the voice of the American Arts & Crafts movement.

Like William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom stressed the need for furnishings to fit the homes they were in, Stickley designed homes to fit the furniture he created. Simple "Craftsman-style" homes -- often no more than a few spacious rooms whose only ornamentation consisted of beautiful natural woodwork and room dividers along with a stone or brick hearth. An abundance of windows to let in natural light was also important since sunlight cast an entirely different light than gas and electric lights. There are over 250 known Stickley house designs with floor plans and illustrations published in The Craftsman magazine from 1904 to 1916.

Charles Rohlfs and Gustav Stickley

Rohlfs distanced himself not just from Stickley, but from any design movement whatsoever, preferring to think of his creations as "artistic" furniture.

When lecturing at Chautauqua, New York, in 1902 about the burgeoning American arts and crafts movement, Rohlfs specifically impugned what he thought of as merely commercial enterprises, such as Stickley's, the Roycrofters in East Aurora, L. and J. G. Stickley, and Charles P. Limbert.

Stickley, on the other hand, sought to build a brand name and successful business by publicly ignoring his most direct competition. For example, while he and Rohlfs exhibited across the aisle from one another at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, and Stickley published a picture of his booth with Rohlfs's installation visible in the background in the second issue of his Craftsman magazine, he neither acknowledged Rohlfs's participation in the exhibition, nor covered Rohlfs's work in any way in the magazine....

Rohlfs's earliest known furniture predates Stickley's first arts and crafts experiments by more than a decade....

Although determined competitors, Charles Rohlfs and Gustav Stickley on some level must have admired and respected one another's contributions to furniture design... each learned from the other in what might be called a conversation of western New York furniture makers.

Stickley was clearly inspired by Rohlfs's designs and benefited from his sense of lightness, elegance, and sophistication, while forging his own vision of austere beauty adapted to repeated production.

Rohlfs's style featured exquisite carving, subtlety of line and form, and boundless creativity, but he learned some lessons in proportion, construction, and design unity from Stickley.

- Joseph Cunningham, "Conversation in western New York: Charles Rohlfs and Gustav Stickley, The Magazine Antiques, May 2008, pp. 120-129

Morris chair
Introduced about 1865 by Morris & Co., the chair's adjustable design - based on a Sussex carptenter's pattern - was designed for cozy comfort. Gustav Stickley later took William Morris' concept and refined the chair's styling: his slats-to-the-floor design is now consdered an Arts & Crafts classic.

With their turned spindles and claw feet, pre-Stickley era Morris chairs are usually deemed gtoo fussy by collectors. But even among the pared-down Stckley-designed chairs, there is variety. An open air chair (no side slats) is the most affordable, and is still robust and attractive.... Next in desirablility comes the side-slats-to-the-seat model; the aforementioned slats-to-the-floor model is at the top of the desirablility scale. From there, even more rarified designsby Stckley can be found, including the bent-arm Morris chair, bow-srm Morris chair, and the design that incorportes spindles rather than broad slats.

[All the Morris chairs feature wide paddle arms.]

- Barbara Rhines, The Essential Six,"  in Old-House Journal, February-March 201, p. 3

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Color photos and their arrangement © 2004 Chuck LaChiusa
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