‘The frenzy of Stickley (is reaching) its pinnacle in New Jersey,” says Ulysses Dietz, curator at the Newark Museum and a leading expert on the subject. This statement was made as Dietz addressed a conference last month at the museum, where a landmark exhibition with a New Jersey connection, “Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement,” is currently drawing crowds.
As the first national touring exhibition to offer a comprehensive examination of the work of one of the leading figures of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, the display is a must-see for Arts and Crafts aficionados and definitely worth a weekend destination trip. The beautifully installed collection of “honest and beautiful” furniture, textiles, case goods, and decorative objects is also a “don’t miss” for anyone who cares about lovely things.
And for the uninitiated there couldn’t be a better introduction to a body of work that, in its way, laid the foundations for modernism. The exhibition continues through January 2.
While not the first exhibit to take a close look at the movement that swept both sides of the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century, it is the first to concentrate on Stickley. And the scope and the sheer number of inclusions puts this exhibition in a class of its own. “This is first ever of the its kind,” says Dietz, “the first just on Stickley ever done.”
To appreciate the scale and scope of the exhibition, visitors would do well to begin with a side trip into Ballantine House, the beer-baron’s mansion that connects with the museum galleries. Reflective of the best of the decorative excess that marked life before the Arts and Crafts movement, the house also contains objects that reflect evolving style. According to Dietz, much of this furniture was transitional. “It was coming directly out of the work of William Morris — out of the English Arts and Crafts Movement.”
Stickley furniture evokes a romantic, pre-industrial world while reflecting a progressive, distinctly American style. Kevin W. Tucker, curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art, who organized the exhibition for the Dallas Museum, describes the movement as “a strand of the gilded age.” Dietz notes, however, “It was a rebel strand.” When it first appeared this furniture was considered radical when compared with the elaborated excess of the Victorian era. Boxy, big, and essentially naked, with deliberately exposed construction elements and simply finished, unadorned wooden surfaces that were meant to be “truthful,” the new style soon became the rage from coast to coast.
While nothing could be much simpler than the squared off, unadorned lines of the featured chairs, settles, tables, and case goods, Dietz says that there were Victorian roots. “Stickley was the shining star in the American Art and Crafts Movement but he carried 19th century baggage.”
He explains that some of the furniture bore Victorian traditions. “Although he rebelled, Victorians values were locked in. Gender-related objects like tea tables and writing desks for ladies reflect these values.”
In the years before World War I Craftsman furnishings reshaped the way Americans lived. Drawing inspiration from William Morris and John Ruskin, Gustav Stickley and his designers translated European arts and crafts concepts into an American style. As both shrewd marketer and skillful publisher who circulated his values and his furniture on the pages of his magazine, “The Craftsman,” he became a force for dramatic change and, in the process, encouraged a simplified lifestyle. The concept of open interior spaces, disdain for ornament, and a case for the importance of light, air, and a garden view were all brought to an emerging and responsive middle class on the pages of his popular magazine.
“Stickley made the movement a practical reality,” says Dietz, and “made the ideals of a more a elitist culture available to the average American. That was his goal.”
Stickley furniture made its first appearance at the Grand Rapids furniture show in 1900. By 1902 it was on display in 41 stores throughout the United States. And for almost a decade the center for his empire was a log house in Parsippany (now open to the public) where he grew fruit and vegetables for his New York restaurant and tried to develop a utopian community and a school for boys.
By the end of World War I, however, the movement had fallen victim to Modernism and the Colonial revival; Arts and Crafts furniture was passe, and Stickley was bankrupt. But today, after a long hiatus, anything with a vintage Stickley provenance is treasured by the cognoscenti and can sell in the stratosphere at auction, and once again the Stickley ideal is the inspiration for countless manufacturers.
The exhibition welcomes the viewer with a fully installed dining room — rugs, pottery, and a table ready for guests. As such, the assembled objects serve as an instructive example of what Stickley and his empire were all about. The Dallas Museum’s Tucker describes such interiors as “holistic” — rooms in which objects and color sit in harmonious comfort.
The furniture is served up in context with textiles and decorative objects. While there is some variety of style all the objects speak to each other and would be happy situated in the same parlor. Chairs, tables, needlework, and cabinetry are unquestionably members of a single family.
With 100 of the most important works produced by Stickley’s designers and workshops we are introduced to the full range — from the enormous Eastwood chair to more eloquently rendered, finely scaled inlaid work attributed to Harvey Ellis. According to Deitz, it turns out there are no direct attributions to Ellis or, for that matter, most of the other designs and designers.
“This is the first exhibition that really looks puts a gimlet eye on the attributions. The Harvey Ellis thing is a good guess. There’s one chair shown in an Ellis interior rendering. There’s no proof but we know he had influence.”
While the featured works and often the movement in this country are frequently described as Stickley, the eponymous furniture and houses were actually the work of a team of designers who were not given credit for their input. “He was protecting the brand,” says Dietz. “It was the big brand that mattered.”
Even so Tucker says Stickley played a significant role. “Stickley neither made nor designed but with others shaped the movement. I don’t think he was completely divorced from the creative process. He was a design orchestrator. He attempted to shape taste at the time.”
In the final gallery a piece of furniture speaks of Stickley’s last, diminished days. While living with his daughter in Syracuse, New York, much of his later life was devoted to an attempt to develop a new and improved furniture finish — an undertaking meant to restore his finances and his status. While it never came to pass and Stickley died poor and forgotten, the story is told by a sampling of test patterns brushed on the bottom of dresser drawers, a necessary economy at the time since it is said that he was too poor to have wood to waste.
Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, on view through Sunday, January 2, Newark Mueum, 49 Washington vneu, Newark. 973-596-6550 or www.newarkmuseum.org.
Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, 2352 Route 10 West, Morris Plains. 973-540-1165. Open weekends year-round, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Open Thanksgiving weekend, Friday to Sunday, November 26 to 28, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.stickleymuseum.org.