Gustav Stickley was the designer of furniture that filled my grandparent’s home. It’s richness in its ability to meld nature with utilitarianism, to strip away the extra froo-froo decoration and embellishment inherent of the Victorian era, leaving elegant simplicity is what makes Stickley furniture so unique.
Gustav Stickley’s love for working in wood began in 1876, when he was eighteen, while working in his uncle’s furniture factory in Pennsylvania, and in 1883 with two of his brothers, formed Stickley Brothers & Company, a furniture manufacturing and retailing firm in New York.
The writings of John Ruskin greatly influenced Gustav Stickley. Ruskin was an art critic also recognized as an art patron, draughtsman, watercolourist, a prominent social thinker and philanthropist, who wrote on subjects ranging from geology to architecture, myth to ornithology, literature to education, and botany to political economy. According to David Cathers, writer of “Stickley Style”, Ruskin believed that factory goods were inherently inferior to works of skilled craftsman, and he called for a return to the practices of the medieval craft guilds, whereby the craftsman were freer, more creative, and happier than the nineteenth-century factory drudge, and these satisfactions improved his life and work while enhancing the whole of society.
By the 1890s many American followers of Ruskin rejected the ornate, mass-produced wares of the era in favor of the simple and handmade. Arts and Crafts societies were being organized, ushering in the Craftsman style with its elements of functional form, good workmanship, decorative structure, and a respect for natural materials. These were all qualities found in the designs of Gustav Stickley, and he applied this style to interior design, metalwork, textiles, and the design and construction of houses as well as furniture.
Stickley believed that the purpose of a piece of furniture should be immediately apparent in its design, and that furniture be durable and functional for daily use, not just to be admired for its beauty.
His furniture was of solid construction, made of sturdy oak. Stickley insisted that poorly made, poorly designed furniture was destructive of good taste and could actually shape one’s character in a negative way. He made use of tenon-and-key joints, through-tenons pinned with visible dowels, double dovetails, and other forms of exposed joinery. It was solid construction and beautiful at the same time.
Stickley was also very concerned about proportion in his design ideals. Every model produced was studied and tested and modified until it was found thoroughly satisfactory. A chair, for example, was designed to ensure the sitter’s comfort, and also designed at the right height, depth, width, thickness and shape in order to ensure a pleasing visual aesthetic. Stickley recreated the colors and textures of nature and applied them to all of his designs- wood, metal, and textiles.
In 1902, in order to create furniture affordable by the middle-class, he employed two-hundred workers in a factory, and made use of machine processes in combination with skilled hand craftsmanship, an idea opposing his original thoughts of crafting. A few years later he began building Craftsman Farms, a combination of a crafts colony, a school, and a demonstration farm. In 1913 he leased, at a cost of $60,000 a year, a twelve-story Manhattan office tower and opened it as the Craftsman Building. Eight floors were designated as retail space, two floors for offices, a club room, a library, a lecture hall and a Craftsman Restaurant at the top. Unfortunatly, quickly following this, a decline in the popularity of Craftsman wares began and Stickley’s firm went bankrupt in 1915.
Gustav Stickley died in 1942