Raised on a farm near Osceola, Wisconsin, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) was small town America to the bone. Known for his unfussy “Mission” or “Craftsman” style furniture, Stickley brought a decidedly American turn to the Arts and Crafts philosophy he encountered on visits to Europe in the late 1890s. His furniture is like no other — a fact that a visit to his former New Jersey home reinforces.
The oldest son of German immigrants Barbara and Leopold Stoeckel, Stickley trained as a stonemason before going to work in his uncle’s chair factory in Brandt, Pennsylvania. With two of his five brothers, Albert and Charles, he founded the Stickley Brothers Company in 1883. Five years later, he launched his own furniture business in the Eastwood suburb of Syracuse, New York.
It is no exaggeration to say that contact with the English Arts and Crafts movement transformed Stickley. Rooted in the philosophical writings of 19th-century British author and art critic John Ruskin, the movement was a reaction against the industrial factory system and its shoddy products. Ruskin lambasted what he saw as the enslavement of English workers denied pride in the labor of their own hands. He championed the practices of medieval craft guilds. Ruskin’s ideas had been put into practice in the mid-19th century by William Morris, whose company produced mostly handmade textiles, wallpapers, stained glass, and furniture.
But where Morris produced expensive items for a wealthy clientele, Stickley was able to bring the Arts and Craft esthetic to middle class Americans by combining state-of-the-art woodworking machinery with hand-wrought elements unavailable to any medieval craftsman. In short, Stickley gave the Arts and Crafts movement a decidedly American entrepreneurial edge. By 1900 his Syracuse showroom offered middle class customers progressive design.
Much as IKEA revolutionized the furniture business with flat-packed, clever designs in the late 20th century, Stickley brought a fresh approach that replaced the heavily ornate Victorian style with simple, honest construction that was true to its materials. One imagines it as a breath of fresh air. Stained surfaces emphasized wood grain; exposed mortise and tenon joints made a virtue of structure; hand-hammered iron and patinated copper hardware conveyed a singular quality.
There seemed to be no end to what Stickley’s belief in self-reliance, home, and family could accomplish. In 1901 he launched The Craftsman magazine, the first two issues of which focused on William Morris and John Ruskin. The magazine covered home, home crafts, literature, music, architecture, city planning, social conditions, and progressive political issues. It promoted gardening for relaxation and as a way to provide fresh food and beautiful flowers. Besides advertisements for home products, there were “how to” articles showing readers ways to create their own home furnishings in metal, leather, textile, ceramic, and other media. Plans for Craftsman-style furniture were included for the home woodworker.
Much like Martha Stewart’s Living magazine, the Craftsman promoted a lifestyle. In 1902 architectural plans were offered for homes constructed in harmony with their surroundings and featuring open floor plans, earth-toned interiors, simple moldings, stained wood, built-in benches, bookcases, sideboards, and fireplaces with cozy inglenooks.
By 1908 Stickley was in his early 50s and at the height of his success. A major figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement, he had furniture on display in stores across the nation. His business was a one-stop shop for home furnishings. He was poised to realize his personal Utopian dream that would include a school for boys on a self-sufficient working farm that would provide fresh produce — from gardens of vegetables and flowers, orchards, dairy cows, and chickens for his very own farm-to-table restaurant.
Stickley acquired 650 acres in Morris Plains, New Jersey, and over the next four years built 10 farm buildings and cottages. Craftsman Farms would exemplify Stickley’s harmony-with-nature philosophy. Its Adirondack-style lodge would be a gathering place for workers, students, and guests, and he had plans for a new home for his wife, Eda, and their six children, Barbara, Mildred, Hazel, Marion, Gustav Jr., and Ruth. Though inspired by nature, it would have the latest in technology: electricity, a massive icebox, even a machine for washing dishes.
Readers might well be expecting a “but” right about now, and they will not be disappointed. Stickley’s business had grown too quickly, and its multi-faceted owner had spread himself too thin. Though his log cabin was erected in 1911, it became the family home instead of a boys’ school.
By 1915 Stickley’s business was operating out of a new and very expensive 12-story building in downtown Manhattan — the Craftsman Building — and was no longer sustainable. Stickley owed almost a quarter of a million dollars (that’s about $6 million today). World War I and changing tastes probably had much to do with the demise. The Arts and Crafts boom was over. Stickley filed for bankruptcy. His magazine ceased publication in 1916, and Craftsman Farms was sold in 1917 to Major George and Sylvia Wurlitzer Farny.
Stickley moved back to Syracuse, where his wife, paralyzed by a stroke, died in 1919. After her death, he lived with his daughter Barbara and her husband in the home he had built for his family in Syracuse in 1900.
The Stickley name, however, continued through the business of his brothers Leopold and John George Stickley. Now Stickley Audi and Company (stickleyaudi.com) in Paramus and New York is reissuing some of Gustav’s original designs.
The Stickley saga is told at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms on 30 park-like acres that include meadows, woods, walking trails, a pond and stream, and several support buildings, including a massive stone stable, three cottages, a calf barn, and the ruins of a dairy barn. The Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills bought the property when, after the Farny family let the house in the 1980s, developers wanted to build 52 townhouses on the property. Now a National Historic Landmark, Craftsman Farms has been run by the nonprofit Craftsman Farms Foundation since 1989.
Vonda Givens has been the museum’s education director for the past six years during which time there have been two major renovation projects, one to provide steel supports for the staircase and a second to introduce a fire suppression system. “The house was built in 1911 and it’s holding up pretty well,” says Givens. “The only way to see it is on a tour and for a small organization we now have quite a number. Six years ago we were not open all year round and tours were only on weekends, but last year we added Friday tours and this year we also have tours on Thursdays.”
With a staff of just two full-time and seven part-time employees, the museum relies on a group of 20 to 25 dedicated volunteer docents. “Being a docent is a big commitment,” says Givens. “The extensive training is time-consuming with four in-class sessions followed by observation of experienced docents. We don’t script our docents. Instead, we prepare them to give tours that are appropriate for each tour group. We get people of varying levels of knowledge and interest, Stickley enthusiasts as well as people interested in architecture and pottery.”
The number on any tour varies widely, but the maximum is 15. “Perhaps one day we’ll introduce an app, but for now we are happy with the old-fashioned one-on-one contact that our tours provide and that suit the historic house,” says Givens. “Because there are no roped-off areas or glass partitions to look through, visitors have an authentic experience. It’s like being a guest of the Stickleys who have just stepped out for a moment.”
When Givens came to work for the museum, it was something of a career shift. Having worked in art museums, she was surprised to find herself working in an historic house. “But I love the mix of history, art, and design here,” she says.
Part of her job is to get people enthusiastic enough to want to return to the museum and to come up with ideas to keep them interested. To trips and lectures and programs for adults and children, the museum has added a series of special interest tours. “Realizing that there were five Stickley daughters living here with their mother while Stickley was running his furniture empire, we put on an exhibition of period fashions last year. It wasn’t haute couture; it was clothing that would have been worn by the middle class. People flocked to the exhibition, and it allowed visitors to see the house with fresh eyes,” says Givens.
New tours include a two-hour walking tour of the property and a children’s tour on first Saturdays for “little detectives.” Kids are given a magnifying glass and a flashlight and are led through the house hunting for clues to find the 1911 equivalent of modern-day items such as an iPod. “In those days if you wanted to hear the latest pop music, you bought sheet music and played it on a piano,” says Givens.
The day after Thanksgiving the house opens with decorations for the holiday season. There is a holiday trunk show, with high-quality Arts and Crafts style gift items by contemporary artisans whose work is on sale year-round in the store.
A very good pictorial history of the museum is on sale in the shop for $12. It has a foreword by the late Princeton professor emeritus of art and archaeology Robert Judson Clark (considered the father of the Arts and Crafts revival); articles by experts Bruce Johnson, Robert Winter, and others; and includes three articles about Craftsman Farms from the Craftsman magazine.
#b#Stickley Museum Tour#/b#
On the day of my visit, tour guide Kristen McCauley led nine visitors through the house. We began on the porch, which runs the entire length of the house. McCauley introduced the Stickley family via vintage photographs on display. She shared details about the house from the three-and-a-half pound terracotta roof tiles made by the Chicago-based Ludowici company — which is still in business and was able to use the original molds to make replacement tiles when the roof was repaired in the early 1990s — to the tongue and groove planking and distinctive joinery of the Arts and Crafts period. The house is built from American chestnuts felled on the property, she tells us, adding that this was a wood that was commonly used for building at the turn of the century after the trees had succumbed to blight
Beautiful in its simplicity, the house has some surprisingly modern touches, like the drains in the porch’s concrete floor that allow it to be hosed down. Stickley, it seems, thought of everything. Before entering the living room, we learn that the Farny family maintained the property until the late 1980s. When it was threatened by a development that would have replaced the house with 52 town houses, the Township of Parsippany-Troy Hills obtained the site through eminent domain. The house is now considered to be one of the most significant landmarks of the American Arts and Crafts movement.
The house is T-shaped, with a one-story kitchen attached to the rear. The large gabled roof has shed dormers at the front and back, allowing light and ventilation in the upstairs bedrooms. Downstairs, the living and dining rooms stretch 50 feet and are warmed by fieldstone fireplaces with hand-hammered copper chimney hoods bearing mottos such as: “The lyf so short the craft so long to lefne” and “By hammer and hand do all things stand,” from Chaucer. “Light bounces off these on the copper hoods and changes during the day,” says McCauley.
The living room’s open plan is divided according to function with a library at one end defined by bookshelves and a 1901 heavy hexagonal table that is quintessential Stickley. Made of quarter-sawn white oak, and with keyed tenon joints instead of nails or screws, it was a popular item that could be purchased via the Stickley catalog. There is also a Morris Chair (after William Morris). “Although Stickley called it a Stickley Recliner,” says McCauley.
Much of the furniture was originally stained green (similar in color to the Grueby pottery lamp on a table). At the other end of the living room, a family space features a roomy leather settle and Stickley’s favorite Eastwood Chair, named for the town where his factory was located.
McCauley points out the axe marks — made to reinforce the idea of handwork — on the supporting posts and the remains of white paint that Mrs. Farny had applied to the interior walls to lighten up the room: the bare logs overhead can seem dark to those used to modern interior lighting. “It’s like being under a canopy of trees in the forest,” says McCauley. “I find it romantic and restful. Although the house was built with electricity and copper and glass lanterns, there were fears connected to the use of this new technology at the time; people were used to candlelight and didn’t like bright light.”
Admire the embroidered pillows and the inlaid wood but don’t skip over the books. Alongside collections of the Nature Library, and expected sets of Shakespeare and Dickens, I spotted one quirky little gem: “Our Near Neighbor the Mosquito” by A.B. Rich.
The dining room is anchored by a massive sideboard of medieval design, which was also available from the Stickley catalog. It has hand-hammered copper drawer pulls and strap leather hinges as well as a cup board (the origin of cupboard). The dining room is brighter than the living room because windows replace the fireplaces here and the fireplace is centered on the long side wall.
Much of the furniture, such as two custom-made corner cabinets in the dining room, was dispersed when the Farnys sold the house. The corner cabinets were later bought back by the foundation. “The word got out that we were hoping for them and there were no other bidders,” said McCauley.
Using period photographs of the house as a guide, the Craftsman Farms Foundation has brought back original furnishings when possible. According to McCauley, about two-thirds of what’s in the house is original.
The rest of the tour takes place on the second floor. Do not be surprised to feel a little giddy when you get there since both staircase and floor are a bit off kilter. There you will see the Stickleys’ modest master bedroom, the girls’ room (each with en suite bath), Gustav Stickley Jr.’s room, and personal items belonging to the family.
McCauley is wearing an apron with the Flemish phrase “Als Ik Kan” that is part of Stickley’s shop mark and taken from a saying by the painter Jan van Eyk. “It’s his promise to his customer,” says McCauley, “that he will give his best effort.”
McCauley, who lives in an 1860 Queen Anne house in Millstone, has been on the staff part-time now for two years since she began as an intern while in graduate school. She’s still working on her masters in cultural history and preservation studies at Rutgers University. She admits to falling a little bit in love with Stickley, or Gus as she has come to think of him. “I call him Gus because I feel I know him,” says McCauley. “I’m afraid that many of us docents think of him that way. I really like his ideas, and I’ve grown to appreciate Arts and Crafts design. The labor that goes into each item is what makes it beautiful. I’m still working on my own esthetic, but I find myself looking for things that use natural materials where you can see a connection to what it’s made of and how it’s made,” she says.
Though interest in Stickley and the Arts and Crafts movement waxes and wanes, it never goes away completely and has fervent devotees. Clearly, there is something at its heart that has a deep human appeal. Witness the exhibition mounted a few years ago by the Dallas Museum of Art that toured and came to Newark to coincide with the centennial anniversary of Craftsman Farms in 2011. “Stickley has fans all over the world and a visit to this site is a sort of pilgrimage for many of them who come from as Japan and New Zealand” says Givens.
Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, 2352 Route 10 West, Morris Plains. Open weekends year-round, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. 973-540-1165.
Tours of the house are offered hourly, Thursday through Sunday, 12:15 to 3:15 p.m. No reservations are necessary. In addition, there are special interest tours for adults and Mr. Stickley’s Detectives: Time Travel Tour for children aged six to nine, accompanied by an adult, on the first Saturday of the month from July through December (except November 2). Twilight tours are held during the winter and holiday candlelight tours are on Saturdays, December 7 and 14, at 5 p.m. Advance reservations are required for all tours except for those of the house.
For more information, call 973-540-0311, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit: www.stickleymuseum.org.
Linda Arntzenius is the author of The Gamble House, published in 2000 by the University of Southern California School of Architecture. The book is a brief history of the National Historic Landmark built in 1908 in Pasadena, California, for David and Mary Gamble of the Proctor & Gamble Company by the Arts and Crafts masters Charles and Henry Greene. It is available at www.gamblehouse.org.