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WHAT’S UP! Stickley Exhibit celebrates

American Arts & Crafts Movement Anti-industrialist philosophy and populist sensibility reveal beauty of utility in furniture design

By Jeff Britton SDUN Reporter


ith the abundance of Craftsman houses in Uptown, the San Diego Museum of Art’s current exhibit

of the Arts & Crafts furniture designs of Gustav Stickley, curated by the Dallas Museum of Art, is apt for the locale and a fitting tribute to one of America’s most

enduring designers. Stickley is recognized for having cre- ated the first truly American furniture, a style which became known throughout the world as American Arts & Crafts. Born in Wisconsin to German immigrants, he was a hardworking, dedicated man, who, with his brothers Charles and Albert, started Stickley Brothers Furniture in 1904, a firm still manufacturing their designs in East- wood, N.Y., not far from Syracuse.


The success of Stickley Brothers put Stickley at the American forefront of what had became known in England during the late 19th century as the Arts & Crafts Movement, a style of design that emphasized handmade furniture using traditional craftsmanship techniques rather than industrial manufacturing. Originally instigated in England in the 1860s by artist/writer William Mor- ris, among other artists, the Arts & Crafts Movement was a response to mount- ing impoverishment of the decorative arts due to indus- trialization. Attempting to liberate workers from brutal factory conditions and re- store pre-industrial age pride in individual craftsmanship and skill, furniture design- began making fine furniture

by hand, incorporating ornamental details based on ideas originating in the Orient.

Unfortunately, because the work was so labor-intensive, the English Arts & Crafts Movement eventu- ally priced itself beyond the reach of what most people could afford.

Stickley, however, felt everyone should be able to enjoy fine furniture. Therefore, after visiting England in 1987, where he first encountered and was inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, he returned to America and incorporated the European philosophy with a more populist American approach. To avoid pricing himself out of the range of the middle class, he used factory methods to produce basic compo- nents, and only used craftsmen to finish and assemble his pieces. His rectilinear shapes, for example, use little ornamenta- tion except for any that occurs naturally in the materials; however, they succeed in revealing the simple beauty of the design’s utility. Extremely popular among “progres- sive” consumers of the time, Stickley’s work has also enjoyed a revival in recent decades. In 1988, for instance, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 for a Stickley sideboard from Craftsman Farms—a 30- acre national historic landmark that has become the centerpiece of Stickley’s early 20th century country estate in West Mor- ris, N.J.

As you enter the exhibit, which cov- ers the period from 1900-1913, the first items that greet you are an armchair and Tom Jones drink stand, a reference to Henry Fielding’s 18th century novel, “The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling.” A gorgeous bungalow rocker decked in a crimson, upholstered seat sits between two elegant tables, one a foxglove tabourette,

San Diego Uptown News | June 24–July 7, 2011


the other both in five-

a poppy table, point style. An octagonal table offset with a lime-

colored center is a charming contrast to a petite chalet desk and a chair with straw seat, both of which have a medieval feel. An uncomfortable looking divan has been reupholstered in a turquoise material, yet retains a certain simplicity. Next to it is an oak and leather library table with an easy chair, which once graced Stickley’s own home.

An adjoining book cabinet is almost

austere in its design, reflecting Stickley’s ancestral German roots, as does the box- like form of the settle next to it. Tea tables, sideboards and reclining chairs with well- worn leather seats continue this theme. The Stickley factory also manufactured lamps, candlesticks, andirons, fireplace

see Crafts, page 26

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