Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) rose from being an ordinary carpenter to becoming the head of a major enterprise encompassing furniture, metalwork, interior design, architecture, journalism, and more. Stickley created an entire empire based on the values of simplicity, quality craftsmanship, and wholesome living. He disseminated all of this through his magazine The Craftsman. Stickley was deeply inspired by William Morris, John Ruskin, and the Arts and Crafts movement, but his own values and ideology made him much more than just their American imitator. Furniture based on his designs is still sold today.
The son of German immigrants, Stickley learned the trade of chair-making from maternal relatives in Pennsylvania. He started out working in the family shop, producing typical late-19th-century furnishings in historicizing styles such as Colonial Revival. However, a visit to England in 1898 changed the course of Stickley’s career. He was already familiar with the Arts and Crafts movement through numerous publications that had made their way to the United States. Like the originators of Arts and Crafts, Stickley was becoming disillusioned with the cheap, fussily-decorated products and low quality of worker life brought on by the industrialization of the furniture industry. His trip abroad gave him first-hand experience with the movement and its Art Nouveau counterparts on the European mainland. Scholars see the greatest influence on his work as coming from British designers Charles Ashbee, A.H. Mackmurdo, Charles Voysey, and Mackay Hugh Baillie-Scott.
The beginning of the 20th century was a huge turning point. Upon returning home, he formed his first solo design company and released a new set of designs based on the Arts and Crafts principles of simplicity, truth to materials, and quality craftsmanship. These chairs and other furnishings are sturdy, undecorated constructions with visible joinery, hammered metal fittings, and fumed oak finishes that emphasize the wood’s natural grain. However, some of his products are enhanced by minimal, tasteful decoration. He eventually expanded into other forms of decorative art, such as metal lamps with amber glass.
Stickley’s work generally avoided both the medieval revival motifs of his British compatriots and the organic forms of Art Nouveau. Stickley christened his new style Craftsman, but it is sometimes also referred to as Mission style because of its similarities to the furniture of the California missions. The term Craftsman would eventually apply to all of Stickley’s diverse pursuits.
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Stickley’s ideology was not exclusively about aesthetics. Social reform and bettering the lives of workers were major parts of the Arts and Crafts ethos. Its participants, including Stickley, believed that dehumanizing industrialization harmed workers by stifling their creativity, individuality, and pride in their work. Although Stickley did not fully subscribe to the overt socialism of English Arts and Crafts, community, cooperation, and social improvement were critically important to him in his design and business practices. Like Morris and others, Stickley aimed to run an egalitarian workplace, promote creativity, and encourage meaningful labor. His United Crafts briefly operated on a profit-sharing model, giving each employee a piece of the profits as well as a salary. Unfortunately, this idea was not financially sustainable in the long term. Unlike Morris and others, Stickley did not completely reject machine production, feeling that using machinery for rote tasks like drilling harmed neither products nor workers. This made Stickley one of the few Arts and Crafts practitioners able to produce quality furniture affordable to the average consumer.
Stickley may have been the entrepreneur behind the Craftsman endeavor, but he was not its sole creative figure. He worked with many skilled designers, architects, and artisans. Not all Craftsman products were designed by Stickley, though they all conform to his core values of simplicity and quality. There was no true Craftsman dogma except good craftsmanship, giving individual designers room for their own creativity. Unfortunately, the collective nature of his business model meant that most collaborators went largely unidentified to the outside world.
Following the example of his British counterparts, many of whom wrote extensively about their work, Stickley published The Craftsman magazine from 1901 to 1916. Although it served as free advertising for his furniture, the magazine was about much more than that. Articles by a variety of designers and other experts, including several women, such as the celebrated Dr. Irene Sargent, discussed architecture, homemaking, gardening, community planning, and more. There were even literary contributions and articles about international artistic traditions. The popular and highly influential magazine promoted Stickley’s values of simplicity, honesty, cooperation, and functionality as the keys to better living.
Like an early precursor to Martha Stewart’s home-making media empire, The Craftsman encouraged amateur crafters by publishing plans, drawings, and instructions. It even explained how to make Craftsman-style furniture at home. Stickley seemed unconcerned about the furniture sales he might be giving up in the process. Throughout his career, Stickley advocated for ordinary, middle-class homemakers and democratic access to homeownership which is most apparent in The Craftsman. It was also through the publication that Stickley first ventured into architecture.
Stickley and Architecture
Stickley first explored interior design and architecture while remodeling his family’s Syracuse, New York home after a fire. However, his personal project quickly became a new business venture when he started including house designs in The Craftsman. The earliest drawings were by Stickley himself, who had no architectural training and focused primarily on the interior design aspect. Subsequent designs were by architects like Ernest G. Dietrich and Harvey Ellis, the latter of whom also designed Craftsman furniture. In 1903, Stickley founded the Craftsman Home Builders’ Club, which made available to subscribers free plans for more than 200 homes. These so-called Craftsman homes varied in design, size, and inspiration, but they were mainly modest in size and intended for middle-class families. Most could be constructed for $2,000-$5,000 by local contractors.
Although there was no unified Craftsman style of architecture, all the homes followed Stickley’s core values of simplicity, functionality, and quality in materials and craftsmanship. Accordingly, they tend to have open floor plans, lots of built-in seating, and porches on multiple sides. They featured cozy living spaces that all family members could use daily. There were no formal parlors in the Craftsman home. Uncarved, stained woodwork like exposed ceiling beams and flat wall panels both defined and unified the interiors. Many had wooden shingles on the outside, but stone, brick, stucco, logs, or even concrete could be used instead.
The drawings also recommended interior paint colors, ceramic tiles, and Craftsman furnishings to complete the ensemble. Although most were intended for countryside settings in the nation’s cooler regions, there were also designs for urban houses and a selection of bungalows suitable for the California climate. Designed with comfortable and wholesome family living in mind, Craftsman homes are most closely related to stripped-down versions of Colonial Revival or Queen Anne homes. They also have commonalities with contemporaneous Shingle Style and Prairie Style houses.
The Craftsman home was a suggestion, not a finalized design. Prospective homeowners could modify the plans to suit their specific needs and desires. A team of Craftsman architects was even available to draw up modifications for those who didn’t want to do so themselves. Later in his career, Stickley briefly ran an architectural design firm that built custom Craftsman homes for wealthier clients in the greater New York area. Many Craftsman houses are still in use as family homes today.
Craftsman Farms and Gustav Stickley’s Late Career
In 1908, Stickley bought a large parcel of land in Morris Plains (now Parsippany-Troy Hills), New Jersey. He planned to start Craftsman Farms: part cooperative farm, part farming school of his childhood dreams. Stickley had a life-long interest in community planning and this project was the closest he ever got to a founding utopian settlement as some of his peers had. The school never opened, but Stickley erected the memorable Log House on the site.
Originally intended as a clubhouse for students, it instead served as his family residence from 1910-1915. Built of logs and stone sourced from the site, the Log House exemplifies Craftsman architecture with its open floor plan, exposed log walls and ceiling beams, lots of windows that look out onto the surrounding landscape, massive copper fireplace hoods engraved with pseudo-medieval sayings, and Craftsman furnishings from every phase of Stickley’s career. The building and landscape harmonize perfectly with each other. Craftsman Farms is now a museum dedicated to Stickley’s work.
For more than a decade, the Craftsman enterprise was highly successful, with its furnishings selling at Craftsman stores and various other retailers in major cities. However, Stickley’s penchant for branching out too far in his business ventures proved to be his downfall. In 1913, he opened the Craftsman Building, a 12-story showroom in Manhattan. Equal parts retail store, corporate headquarters, designer emporium, and complete shopping experience, the Craftsman Building even contained a farm-to-table restaurant supplied by Craftsman Farms. However, it was too expensive for Stickley to maintain, especially as his style fell out of fashion in the 1910s.
In 1915, Stickley went bankrupt and lost everything. By this time a widower, he returned to his old Syracuse home to live with his daughter and son-in-law. However, two of his brothers, themselves furniture makers, picked up some of his former products. Their business survives as the modern-day Stickley furniture company, which continues to produce furniture based on Gustav Stickley’s designs. Although his name is not well known anymore, his ideas about design, cooperation, and clean living are still as relevant today as they were a century ago.