Review by Anne E. Mallek
Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement

Kevin W. Tucker, with essays and contributions by Beverly K. Brandt, David Cathers, Joseph Cunningham, Beth Ann McPherson, Tommy McPherson, and with contributions by Sally-Anne Huxtable. Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement. New Haven: Yale University Press, in association with Dallas Museum of Art, 2010. 271 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., catalogue, bibliography, index. $60.00.

Nearly forty years after the first exhibition on the Arts and Crafts movement to include the work of Gustav Stickley (1858–1942), held at the Princeton University Art Museum in 1972, and on the heels of several monograph exhibitions of other American architect-designers of the movement, it indeed seems a fitting moment to publish a full discussion of the words and work of a man who was both mediator and mouthpiece for the American Arts and Crafts movement. Stickley embodied the spirit and opinions of the movement. He was an entrepreneur with the aspirations of a master craftsman, beginning his work in the furniture industry at eighteen, finally working for himself at forty. He promoted himself and his designs to the new American middle class (though not without the assistance of a staff of talented writers and designers), marketing his simple and affordable furniture to complement the house designs he published from 1903 in his magazine, The Craftsman (1901–1916). The magazine remains a key resource for understanding the Arts and Crafts movement in America.

Within the pages of the Craftsman, Stickley was an early proponent of integrated design, and this new publication, edited by Kevin W. Tucker, is a tribute to that idea. Tucker, the Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art and curator of the related exhibition, is keen to delineate Stickley’s work as something apart from the “superficially promotional” or simply as Stickley’s personal vision. As he rightly points out in his introduction, very little about Gustav Stickley can be gleaned from his personal correspondence. Instead, his publications and public interviews are the sources of information about him. It is appropriate, then, to consider discovering his position within the movement from an examination of the social and commercial context of the time, from his designs and practices, from an analysis of the work of one of his first and most significant advocates-interpreters, Irene Sargent, and from an examination of his own homes.

Having published his own monograph on Stickley in 2003, it is fitting that author David Cathers begins the book with his essay “‘The Moment’—Gustav Stickley from 1898 to 1900.” Cathers brings us up to “the moment” of Stickley’s formal entry into the American Arts and Crafts movement with his exhibition of furniture at the Grand Rapids exposition in 1900. From an interest in furniture that was simple to clean and care for, to the economic bust and boom of the late nineteenth century, as well as the influence of the burgeoning middle class, Cathers capably gives us a sense of the furniture industry of the time and Stickley’s evolution within it. He emphasizes the importance for Stickley as well as for the middle classes of separating themselves from the past and beginning the century and life itself afresh. Stickley captured this spirit, crafting his message in the Craftsman as he did his furniture, by slowly reshaping public taste and demand.

In his essay “Art from Industry: The Evolution of Craftsman Furniture,” Tucker addresses Stickley’s business, processes, and products. He stresses the importance of the Craftsman magazine in shaping Stickley’s approach to industrialization, as he walked a fine line between the ideal of the craftsman and running a practical business—a challenge that even William Morris was never able successfully to overcome. One of the most interesting aspects of Tucker’s chapter is his detailed discussion of Stickley’s factory, its staffing, and the creative touches that Stickley was able to add to his furniture through choice of material, finishes, and techniques like fuming, the process that uses ammonia to alter the color of wood. Tucker is also keen to emphasize the collaborative nature of the firm’s designs, further debunking the myth that Harvey Ellis was sole designer for the lighter inlaid furniture produced in 1903–1904. He concludes by again positioning Stickley as a kind of bridge, not just between art and industry but also between Arts and Crafts and modernism, reaching after the new while simultaneously wishing for the simple life. It further underscores the notion that achieving a simple style or a simple life was nothing if not complicated.

In the third and central essay of the volume, “Irene Sargent and the Craftsman Ideology,” Joseph Cunningham, curatorial director of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, examines Sargent’s role in her five years as editor and contributor to the Craftsman, during which time she contributed eighty-four articles to Stickley’s magazine. It is not difficult to argue Sargent’s influence on Stickley or her usefulness as his mouthpiece and advocate. Yet in analyzing her very first contribution to the enterprise (pre-Craftsman), “A Revival of Old Arts and Crafts,” Cunningham argues the significance of Sargent’s strategic presentation of the Craftsman ideology, beginning with her statement “all things have become new.” With but a few strokes of her pen, she allied Stickley’s work with the design reform movement in England, with primitive cultures, the House Beautiful movement in America, and with American philosophical movements like Transcendentalism. It was Sargent, also, who possessed the rhetorical skill to help Stickley navigate the waters between socialist ideals and commercialism. Cunningham argues compellingly the importance of Sargent’s ideas and influence in crafting Stickley’s persona and the mission of his firm, so much so that his argument calls for further study of Sargent herself, her background, and the evolution of her ideas (though, as with Stickley, we are left with little personal correspondence to make such elucidation an easy matter).

With the discussion of Sargent and the Craftsman at the center of this collection of essays, it is appropriate that it should be framed by treatments of Stickley’s furniture and architecture—together they form his Craftsman trident, so to speak, the three areas of his greatest influence on the Arts and Crafts movement. Beverly Brandt, professor in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, addresses “The Paradox of the Craftsman Home,” explaining how these published house designs were both essential to the new way of living promulgated by the Craftsman magazine as well as literally becoming homes for Craftsman furniture. In examining a number of the house designs, Brandt illustrates the paradox that although the houses were unified in principle, their styles could vary widely. Bound together by common Arts and Crafts ideas such as the use of local materials and attention to natural surroundings, they could still be distinctive enough to suit varying individual tastes. Indeed, she posits their model as one for sustainable housing in the twenty-first century.

While Brandt identifies Stickley’s own homes in Syracuse and Craftsman Farms as deliberate and effective models for the Craftsman way of life, Beth Ann and Tommy McPherson take this one step further in their chapter, “Gustav Stickley at Home.” They bring together discussions of Craftsman furniture and the Craftsman home, noting the importance of examining this furniture in its intended context, as well as its suitability to that context. Specifically, they examine the furniture and interior decoration in Stickley’s homes in Syracuse and at Craftsman Farms, where they served as executive director and curator. The McPhersons draw on contemporary photographs and accounts of these interiors (as published in the Craftsman) and recent analyses in Historic Structure Reports, which provide a wealth of documentary, graphic, and physical information about a property’s history and physical condition. While their own analysis is compelling, it is sometimes hampered by the lack of comparative photographs within the chapter (one must delve into the catalogue for images of the corner cupboard and sideboard discussed), and by the small size of the photos of interiors. New color photographs are shown side by side and to scale with contemporaneous black-and-white photos (the latter are presumably scans from the magazine itself, preventing them from being shown at a higher resolution and larger format). However, it seems a shame that, given the topic, it was decided to deprive the reader of the opportunity to appreciate the details of interiors and furniture writ large and in color, since newer photos of restored interiors are available.

Throughout the essays there is a consistent emphasis on the fact that Stickley was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England (especially by the work of architect-designers M. H. Baillie Scott and C. F. A. Voysey)—whether from his various visits to the country, through contemporary art periodicals, or his own exhibitions in Syracuse and Rochester, in which he exhibited English examples alongside the work of his own firm. Nonetheless, when direct comparison is made with English work there are rarely any photos to substantiate the point (only one comparative image of a Liberty piece is shown). One fully expects the majority of images in the publication accompanying a monographic exhibition to be of the artist’s work, and yet, as Tucker himself emphasizes in his introduction and essay, Stickley by no means worked alone or in isolation. The intent of this exhibition and catalogue, as expressed by their shared title, is to examine Stickley’s position within the larger Arts and Crafts movement, and it seems somewhat unjust not to have fleshed this out more fully with illustrations. Additionally, given that Stickley is positioned as mediator between the English and American movements, it would have been helpful if there had been a more substantial comparison between the works of Stickley and, say, Voysey, Baillie Scott, C. R. Ashbee (who visited America on several occasions), or C. R. Mackintosh in Britain; and Greene and Greene or Frank Lloyd Wright in America.

Following the essays, the second half of the book is composed largely of catalogue entries, examining individual works in the exhibition alongside beautiful full-page color photographs of furnishings and designs. Entries are contributed by the various essayists and by Sally-Anne Huxtable (project researcher at the Dallas Museum of Art), elucidating details about the designers, influences, and the history of the particular design. Tucker and Cathers are especially adept at incorporating relevant entries from the Craftsman, allowing Stickley to speak for himself where possible, and further enhancing the context for discussion of the object. While analysis in some entries is occasionally uneven, the photographs remain important documents of the objects in the exhibition and as examples of Stickley’s most definitive work.

As well as a checklist of objects, the appendixes further elucidate important details related to Stickley’s business history and practices—including a “tree” or time line of Stickley family companies, a listing of marks and labels used by Stickley’s firm, a list of retailers of Craftsman products (compiled from advertisements and lists published in the Craftsman), and especially a list of employees and associates, along with approximate dates they were active in Stickley’s firm (recalling Anita Ellis’s seminal work on Rookwood Pottery artists in Rookwood Pottery: The Glaze Lines [1995]). For these compilations alone, this publication makes a valuable addition to Stickley scholarship, while its essays raise important points (and further questions) as to Stickley’s influence within the Arts and Crafts movement in America. The quality of both this publication and its accompanying exhibition make it difficult to believe that this is the first nationally touring exhibition to address Stickley’s work, and Kevin Tucker and the Dallas Museum of Art are to be applauded for their vision and efforts in bringing it together. In thus readdressing the work of Gustav Stickley, both exhibition and publication cannot fail to inspire further discussion and, one hopes, future exhibitions on Stickley’s contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement and to the history of decorative arts in America.

Anne E. Mallek
The Gamble House

American Furniture 2011