NEW YORK – “Als ik Kan” translates to “to the best of my ability.” A longstanding motto for Flemish craftsmen, this phrase became a guiding tenet for Gustav Stickley (1858–1942), the most well well known of five brothers from Osceola, Wisconsin, whose legacy helped shape the evolution of American furniture.
Often described as Mission furniture (a term that Gustav reportedly despised), Stickley furniture is characterized by solid construction favoring clean lines and simple decoration. It was a 180-degree shift from the fussy furniture made in the Industrial Era, with over-the-top decoration, poor workmanship and fake joinery. Stickley’s furniture was crafted to be “honest” and not relegated to a formal parlor for fancy occasions. This was furniture built for everyday use, meant to be well used and cherished from one generation to the next.
By 1876, the Stickley family and their 11 children moved to Brandt, Penn., where the five brothers began working in their uncle’s chair factory, circa 1877. Though Gustav, Albert, Charles, Leopold and John Georg Stickley collaborated and competed with each other for 60 years and each of the brothers worked with one another in at least one enterprise, never did all five brothers work together simultaneously.
The leader of the American Craftsman movement, which was an offshoot of the British Arts and Crafts movement, Gustav espoused the Arts and Crafts aesthetic not only through his furniture but as a publisher. With his brothers Charles and Albert, Gustav launched Stickley Brothers & Company in 1883, which they ran for five years. In the summer of 1900, he worked with Henry Wilkinson and, perhaps LaMont A. Warner (who would go on to become his first staff designer) to forge his first Arts and Crafts works in an groundbreaking line named the New Furniture. A year later, he debuted a progressive line of furniture in white oak and other native woods to middle-class consumers. The first issue of The Craftsman magazine, was published in October 1901, and it became an important medium of advocating the Arts and Crafts philosophy as well as promoting Stickley’s wares.
Don Treadway, an Arts and Crafts specialist at Treadway Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, describes Stickley furniture as “one of the finest examples of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Its design was radical at the time and remains one of the most recognizable types of furniture ever constructed.”
Among the most popular and useful Stickley forms today are cabinets, bookcases, chairs and tables, owing to their utilitarian nature. One of the most iconic pieces however is the Morris chair. Leopold Stickley designed the bow-arm Morris chair, circa 1910, in homage to William Morris, who championed the British Arts and Crafts movement. It is still in production today. Though the passion for handcrafted furniture shrank in the 1950s-70s, the company endured and its bedrock of thoughtful design and distinguished craftsmanship has endured into the 21st century.
“The market is quite good for the rare and most desirable pieces,” says Treadway. “Form, scarcity and most of all condition, play a large part in its price. Some things we sell today bring half what they would have five to ten years ago. The truly great pieces rarely become available. When they do, they will still command a strong price.” He cited an early table that came from an East Coast collection, which he sold about five to seven years ago for over $300,000, putting in firmly in the category of fine American period furniture.
Auction prices in recent years were led by a Gustav Stickley 5-leg cross-stretcher dining table (shown at top of page) at a California Historical Design, and a rare and early Gustav Stickley Damascus plant stand (shown below) at Treadway Toomey Auctions. Both brought $22,000 in June 2015 sales.
Furniture, unlike the technology devices that run our lives, is one of the most personal items we will ever buy. Great furniture, like Stickley pieces, can be the bedrock of our homes, where we sit to teach our children to read, where we lay our heads to sleep and where we break bread together. Special pieces become wrapped up in fabric of our lives and memories, creating an heirloom for the next generation.
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