Gustav Stickley is a name that is well-known today. It is synonymous with the Arts and Crafts movement, of which he is the true father. If you’ve ever watched Antiques Road Show, you’ll note that his furniture is priced astronomically—revered for its simplicity and elegant design. However, Stickley died in 1942 in relative anonymity and poverty. Much like Van Gogh before him, he was a true visionary who would not be fully appreciated until after he died.
The Arts and Crafts movement was started by William Morris and John Ruskin in England during the mid-1800s. The movement championed simplicity and function over ornamentation. Morris and Ruskin led the charge of returning to craftsmen rather than simply using mass-produced furniture being produced by machines. The movement was also in response to the inhuman treatment of laborers in factories. The American Arts and Crafts movement has its roots in the English Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1901, Stickley began publishing The Craftsman, a magazine which trumpeted his ideas of how natural materials should be used in building homes. He was passionate about bringing deep-toned woods and natural stonework to the forefront of housing in the early 20th century. Unlike Morris and Ruskin, he believed that machines could do some of the mundane work such as cutting, shaping and drilling as long as workers were used for the more delicate work such as trimming, assembling, staining and finishing.
The driving idea behind the movement was to remove the clutter from housing. Stickley didn’t include anything that was merely pleasing to the eye—it had to be functional as well. There were no bric-a-bracs or flourishing curlicues if they didn’t serve a purpose. Stickley eschewed the Victorian ethic of collecting the exotic to decorate. For him, beauty meant a cohesive whole, both on the exterior and the interior. Nothing should be jarring or out of place. The lines of his houses were clean and not hidden by embellishments. He created the one of the first Craftsman-style houses in 1902, changing the face of architecture forever.
Stickley had a love affair with wood, partly because of how utterly natural it was. His passion for craftsmanship was cultivated by his readings of Ruskin and other English Arts and Crafts movement participants. Even though he designed furniture in the Victorian style with all its fussiness and ostentation early in his career, he eventually turned to his twin true loves—wood and craftsmanship. There had to be honesty in the furniture, or it didn’t interest Stickley. By honesty, he meant that a chair had to function as a chair—honesty of intent—and the wood used had to be used as it was intended—honesty of form. No elaborate twisting for him—he did not design his furniture to impress but to be functional. In this respect, he had much in common with Frank Lloyd Wright.