Gustav Stickley is well-known for his American arts and crafts furniture, characterized by its sturdy and utilitarian appearance. While he promoted the idea of handcrafted furniture, as a businessman, mindful of cost, he took full advantage of the available technology of the time. His emphasis on structure with simple, or better yet, no applied decoration, however, put him in the spotlight at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Stickley, the eldest of five brothers, all of whom became furniture makers, was arguably the most talented and forward-looking. First apprenticing in his uncle’s chair factory in Pennsylvania, he later formed a partnership with furniture salesman Elgin Simonds, and together they produced fashionable furniture in various popular styles. In 1898 Stickley broke from Simonds and soon began designing and turning out furniture with a new look. Often controversial (and today known as much for his promotional abilities as for his furniture designs), he was active in the business for about another seventeen years. Yet he influenced American taste significantly.
Taken for granted for decades, Stickley furniture lives on today. In recent years there has been a large upsurge in interest in both Stickley and his ideas. While the furniture has been long popular with a wide-range of people, it cannot really be said to have attracted interest from major museums until fairly recently.
Most scholars agree that Stickley’s major period of innovation was 1900 to 1904. From March 23 to April 4, 1903, an Arts and Crafts Exhibition, under the auspices of Stickley’s business, United Crafts, opened in the Craftsman Building in Syracuse, New York. There suites of rooms on three floors of the building held a wide range of handicrafts from near and far, from the decorative leatherwork of Mrs. George Shaw of Boston to the metalwork and ceramics of Maison Bing in Paris. Stickley’s own contribution was a model dining room that served as a carefully composed showcase for his newly designed furniture. Irene Sargent, the formidable scholar and editor of the Craftsman magazine (which Stickley founded), enumerated the items in a May 1903 article: “a sideboard, a linen chest, screens, a table and chairs; all fine representatives of the simple, structural style of the Stickley designs.” A photograph of the dining room was also illustrated. In fumed oak the “linen-chest matched [the sideboard],” which Sargent described as “long and low; massive, and yet refined in line; decorated only with wrought-iron fittings consisting of strap hinges and drawer-pulls.”
This linen chest has recently been acquired by the Dallas Museum, coincidentally founded in 1903. The linen chest shown in the exhibition was never put into production; this fact along with other information, has made it clear that the museum has the actual piece that Stickley put on view. It is in fine condition according to Kevin W. Tucker, the Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design, and he has designated it for a re-creation of the 1903 dining room in an upcoming traveling exhibition entitled Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which will open at the Newark Museum in the fall of 2010, before moving to the Dallas Museum and then the Cincinnati Art Museum. Meanwhile, as one of a growing collection of arts and crafts furnishings, it can be seen in the museum’s recently reinstalled North Decorative Arts and Design Gallery as part of a specially created Stickley interior that features furniture and metalwork both on loan and from the museum’s collection.