Gustav Stickley (1858? - 1942) didn't start the Arts and Crafts movement. By the time he became involved in the late 1890s, it was a well-established international phenomenon. Within a few years Stickley had become one of its major American figures. His handsome, carefully constructed Craftsman furniture, metalwork, and textiles were successfully sold to an appreciative market, and were widely imitated. His influential Craftsman magazine became a leading national advocate of the movement's ideals. It is impossible today to imagine the American Arts and Crafts without Gustav Stickley.
The movement first stirred to life in Britain in the middle of the 19th century. Its philosophical and intellectual roots grew from several sources, but for Stickley the writings of John Ruskin (1819 - 1900) were probably the most important. Ruskin was a fierce critic of Britain's burgeoning factory system. He spoke out against the shoddy quality of machine-made goods, and attacked the esthetics of products designed for show instead of function. In Ruskin's view mass production enslaved workers to machines and robbed them of the pleasure of their own labor. To right these wrongs he advocated a return to what he saw as the superior practices of the medieval craft guilds. For Ruskin, a visibly hand-made object had beauty because its irregularities betokened the freedom of the artisan who made it.
In 1861 William Morris (1834 - 1896) founded a firm that put Ruskin's reformist ideas into practice. Morris & Company produced well-designed, and largely hand-wrought, textiles, wallpapers, stained glass, and furniture. Morris was a brilliant pattern maker and craftsman, and, like Ruskin, he valued handwork. In one of his most famous pronouncements on furniture he said: "So I say our furniture should be good citizens' furniture, solid and well made in workmanship.... Also, except for very movable things like chairs, it should be made of timber rather than walking-sticks." Morris spread his ideas through his writings and public speaking, and his magnetic personality attracted many adherents. He began the process of expanding the definition of art to include traditional handicrafts, and helped launch the movement that came to be known as Arts and Crafts.
From the first, Stickley's Arts and Crafts furniture expressed his unique design sense -- his mastery of form, proportion and color. It was "good citizens' furniture," simple, functional, and sturdy, and its decorative effect depended largely on honestly revealed structure. This emphasis on the details of joinery -- tenon-and-key joints, exposed tenons, visible dowels -- celebrated the handmade nature of Stickley's furniture while de-emphasizing the machine processes used in its construction. Stickley's furniture gave the appearance of being hand made in the best Arts and Crafts tradition, and his promotional publications encouraged this view. But in reality it benefited from the efficiencies of his well-equipped factory. Stickley's apparent duality, the gulf between what he said and what he did, reflected what were actually radical goals. The British Arts and Crafts movement that inspired him, as well as some of the movement's American incarnations, often had an elitist cast. Artfully designed handcrafted goods were affordable only by the wealthy. It was a conundrum that Morris, a sincere Socialist who sold his products to the rich, was never able to solve. Gustav Stickley took seriously the values of the Arts and Crafts, and to them he added his expansive creative vision and his dynamic entrepreneurial verve. He sought to make the movement more inclusive, its products available to a wider public. And he did this with great success.
Stickley's idealist/commercial sense is perhaps most evident in The Craftsman, the magazine he founded in October 1901 and published until December 1916. The first issue was devoted to William Morris, the second to John Ruskin. Stickley began the magazine to promote his furniture and spread his ideas about the Arts and Crafts, but it quickly outstripped this narrow agenda and took up the many themes that concerned the movement. In addition to its profiles of movement figures, The Craftsman attempted to reform popular taste by publishing examples of the "true" in furniture - plain, unadorned, reticent design - and pointedly contrasting it with the "false," the over-ornamented, derivative, poorly-made furniture found for sale in many shops. It published a series of Craftsman Houses to advance the ideas of rational, unified design in domestic architecture, and to foster Stickley's oft-stated beliefs in self-reliance and the centrality of home and family. The magazine's interest in homes and home life logically led to features on gardening, as means of beautifying the home, providing families with food, and offering a productive use of leisure time. It encouraged the revival of handicrafts with inspiring articles coupled with practical, detailed instructions for working in metal, leather, textiles, ceramics and other media. It published detailed plans showing readers how to construct their own Craftsman-style furniture. The Craftsman also played an active part in communicating the larger concerns of the Arts and Crafts movement: it addressed environmental issues, supported the back to the land movement, and advocated the simplification of life. It dealt progressively, for its day, with issues concerning women, native Americans, and minority cultures. Starting in 1908, it reported on the development of Craftsman Farms, the Stickley family's New Jersey home, and the culmination of the domestic ideals espoused by The Craftsman. Like so much of what Stickley did, his magazine sprang from commercial impulses, but in transcending these impulses it taught and inspired a generation of artisans, designers, and architects, and reached out to thousands more seeking a simpler way to lead their lives.
Gustav Stickley was an important voice for design reform in his day, and with the well-designed, well-made furniture, metalwork, and textiles of the Craftsman Workshops he created an authentic body of work that has endured. In the pages of The Craftsman magazine, he pursued his commercial purposes guided by a genuinely idealistic desire to improve the lives of others as he had improved his own. Stickley emerged as a leading spokesman of the American Arts and Crafts, and he remains central to its understanding today.
-- David Cathers