Stickley, Gustav – American Arts & Crafts designer – New York

Gustav Stickley (1858-1942)

Gustav Stickley is credited with creating the first distinctly American style of furniture known as Craftsman. He was born on March 9, 1858 in Osceola, Wisconsin to German immigrant parents. As the eldest of six children he went to work as a stonemason at the age of twelve when his father deserted the family in 1870. In 1875, Gustav (originally spelled with an “e”), Charles, and Albert Stickley learned basic furniture making skills when they were given jobs in their uncle’s chair making factory in Brandt, Pennsylvania. Five of the Stickley brothers became furniture manufacturers. While his brothers left their mark in the field it was Gustav, with his eye for design, who is universally credited as the keynote figure associated with the American Arts & Crafts movement.

By 1882 Gustav had become foreman of the factory that was manufacturing thousands of chairs per year. The three Stickley brothers left their uncle’s firm in 1884 to open the Stickley Brothers Company in Binghamton, New York, which grew rapidly and eventually included all five Stickley brothers. In 1888 Gustav, who was no longer content to make reproduction style furniture, left the family business to pursue his own interests. After a trip to England in 1897 he became inspired by the British social reformer John Ruskin and designer William Morris. The Arts & Crafts movement was initially frontiered in England but it was never as successful abroad as it was in the United States. It took the vision and discrimination of Gustav Stickley to give it breath and life. He returned to the United States in 1899 and at the age of 41 established United Crafts in Eastwood, New York and began producing a line of Arts and Crafts furniture based on the handcrafted principles of simplicity and quality. The term “Mission” furniture originated for this work because it reflected the austerity of the California missions.

A trip to the 1900 Paris Exhibition reinforced Stickley’s distaste for reproductions and underscored his philosophy that furnishings should be affordable, serviceable, and sturdy, with a focus on suitability for the home and lifestyle of the day and not imitations of a style created for another period. His choice of wood was primarily native American oak. The designs were forthright and uncomplicated with exposed joinery and upholstery of natural materials such as canvas or leather. The original finishes were typically shellacked allowing the character of the wood to stand for itself.

The philosophy of the Craftsman style was further promoted by Gustav’s publication of The Craftsman magazine in 1901 with the first issue dedicated to William Morris. The publication did much to further the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement. It was the platform for Stickley’s Craftsman-style house designs that were based on his concept of natural materials, quietude, abundant light, and an understated style that was geared to comfort, practicality, and harmony.

In 1904 Stickley established the Craftsman Workshop in Syracuse, New York and in 1905 the editorial and executive operation was moved to New York City. Eventually Stickley’s catalogues included metalwork, pottery, lighting fixtures and textiles. Gustav Stickley was the only man to successfully create a handcrafted look made by manufacturing methods. His work was met with high acclaim and was exhibited at the prestigious Grand Rapids and Pan American International furniture expositions.

While he continued to expand his company at a rapid pace the popularity of the movement fell into decline, partially due to the approach of World War I and also because tastes shifted toward more modern and colorful designs. Stickley’s company went bankrupt in 1915 and after some unsuccessful attempts to introduce new styles he died in Syracuse, New York on April 21, 1942. Although he died a disillusioned man, he had the foresight to say, “Oak furniture that shows plainly what it is and in which the design and construction harmonize with the wood will in time become valuable and will be treasured as heirlooms in this country.”

-Reference note by Contributing Editor Carole Deutsch.

Gustav Stickley & Fashionable Furniture for the American Middle Class

Before Arts & Crafts
The Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876 may have been a celebration of 100 years of American independence, but America was still looked to the old country for art and culture. Europe set the style for furnishings for U.S. homes and business, and consequently these were a mish-mash of reproduction styles taken from the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine periods, the Renaissance or the reign of Louis XV among others. The reproductions with which average Americans furnished their homes were of poor quality and craftsmanship, and therefore, lacking the charm of the originals.

The Beaux Arts Style

In Europe, the Beaux Arts style was flourishing and was translated into expensive objects beautifully wrought of high quality materials for the upper classes, but in America, Beaux Arts reproductions achieved a much lower level of craftsmanship, and the style never entirely caught on in this country.

The Art Nouveau Style

By the end of the 19th century, Beaux Arts had morphed into Art Nouveau in Europe, especially in France. This was a style that relied heavily on line, glorifying the sinuous forms of flowers and vines and especially the elegant grace of the female form. American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and architect Louis Sullivan, (both of whom had studied in France) distilled this style in their work. This was the very beginning of a distinct American style. With its emphasis on line rather than surface decoration, the way was paved for the Arts & Crafts movement.

The Arts & Crafts Movement in England

Inspired by the work of William Morris (1834-1896) and the writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900), the Arts & Crafts movement called for a return to the craftsmanship standards of medieval guilds, where talented artisans were rewarded for their work both monetarily, but also with pride in an object made beautifully by hand. Because of the hand crafted nature of these items, the construction and detailing needed to be simple to make them economically viable, and honesty in design and materials spoke to an American middle class that was more growing comfortable with its own identity and less inclined to identify with European aristocracy.

The American Arts & Crafts Movement

Americans borrowed heavily from English Arts & Crafts, but some adherents felt that the emphasis on expensive hand work limited the accessibility of objects to only the very wealthy. One such individual was Gustav Stickley, whose designs were created via a combination of hand and machine work.

Stickley and American Arts & Crafts

Gustav Stickley (1857-1942) was the eldest of eleven children, and had to leave school in 8th grade after his father abandoned the family. By 1874, he was working in his Uncle’s chair factory, where by the age of 21, he was promoted to foreman and manager. When not in the factory, Stickley continued his interrupted education in his Uncle’s library, where he became acquainted with the principles of Morris and Ruskin. After a series of only moderately successful partnerships with some of his brothers, Gustav traveled to Europe in 1898, where he saw firsthand works in the Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts styles, meeting with their creators.

The Gustav Stickley Company

For his latest endeavor, Stickley designed a whole new line of furniture based on his European observations. His Art Nouveau line was produced on only a limited basis, but his Arts & Crafts series, which was in keeping with his preference for simple lines, was exhibited at the Grand Rapids Furniture Mart in 1900. House Beautiful magazine praised the design, referring to it as “sensible furniture”.

-Reference Note by p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer.

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