"I know by my own feelings & desires
what these men want, what would have saved them from
the lowest depth of savagery: employment which would
foster their self-respect and win the praise and sympathy
of their fellows, and dwellings which they could come
to with pleasure, surroundings which would soothe
and elevate them; reasonable labour, reasonable rest.
There is only one thing that can give them this, and
it is art."
Morris, on the woes of the Industrial Age
Arts and Crafts movement in America was brief. From
its emergence in 1900, it lasted a scant sixteen years.
But in that time, it came to dominate American interiors.
And, for once, the country was united by a single, truly
American style. If only for that reason, American Arts
and Crafts remains an historically important movement.
But it wasn't born in a vacuum. To
understand the movement historically, you have to cross
back over the Atlantic and glance at what was happening
in England about the same time Darwin was beginning
to undo Genesis.
After all, if the world wasn't created
in seven days, neither was the Arts and Crafts movement.
Morris, who founded the English Arts and Crafts movement
in the mid-1800s as a reaction against the Industrial
Revolution, was, in a word, obsessive. Indeed, in a
career that included socialist lecturing, painting,
embroidery, furniture manufacturing, poetry and the
occasional trip to Iceland, Morris was perhaps unique
in his ability to pursue so many obsessions in such
a singular way. (An example of his obsessiveness: in
his translations of the Icelandic sagas, he tried to
avoid all words which weren't of Anglo-Saxon derivation.)
With a different mindset, Morris could have made a brilliant
fascist leader, honing in on a single, burning issue
and shoving it deep into the red fire of public opinion.
But that wouldn't be Morris. Far from
being a Victorian Mussolini, Morris was a gentle-voiced
proselytizer who never quite got the trick of public
speaking. But his thoughts found other forms, and it
is chiefly through his philosophical essays and highly
original wallpaper and chintz patterns that his ideas
have found longevity.
As for his furniture (manufactured
and sold through Morris & Co.), it suffers from
a heaviness and moroseness too consciously derived from
medieval churches to be appreciated widely today. Only
with the emergence of the American movement under Gustav
Stickley (1858-1942) do we see forms whose simplicity
of design allow them to breathe fresh air nearly a century
after they were made. As Nancy Hunt points out, though,
we shouldn't be surprised by the American movement's
freshness. It was, after all, the precursor of modernism.
"It was mostly a reaction against
Victorianism," Hunt says. "And by that I mean
mass-produced furniture that had a lot of applied ornaments
and had very little integrity. And it was also a reaction
to the Industrial Revolution." In this sense, the
American movement had clear ties to its British roots.
"You can't separate the two,"
Hunt points out. "Our style is definitely different
and definitely American. But its roots are with the
British philosophers of the time period."
Morris, Gustav Stickley believed his work should not
be viewed merely as furniture design. As Morris had,
Stickley believed that salvation from an increasingly
industrialized world could be achieved through aesthetically
pleasing interiors. In short, he believed that furniture
was art, and in art lay salvation. Or, as John Keats
had written nearly a century before, "Beauty is
Truth, Truth Beauty,—that is all / Ye know on
earth, and all ye need to know." Shortly after
his designs became popularly successful, Stickley founded
The Craftsman, which he used as a platform for
philosophical essays as well as more practical articles
on interior decoration.
Stickley and his brothers, Leopold
(1869-1957) and John George (1871-1921) (who together
founded the L. & J.G. Stickley Company) and Charles
(ca. 1865-1928) and Albert (1862-1928) (who together
founded the Stickley Brothers Company, though Charles
later left to produce his own line) weren't the only
manufacturers of American Arts and Crafts furnishings,
but they were among the best.
According to Hunt, modern collectors
generally concede that Gustav's work remains the best,
with L. & J.G.'s mature pieces rivaling it; from
there the ranking passes to Charles Limbert, whose work
had more pronounced English influences, and then to
the Stickley Brothers, whose more inferior work was
mass-produced in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the then-new
capital of cheaply produced furniture.
a brief period, Arts and Crafts dominated the American
scene. By 1916, though, the movement was all but dead.
Gustav himself declared bankruptcy on May 20, 1915,
after the approach of World War I reduced furniture
purchases so much that he could no longer sustain his
new, idealistic headquarters, the Craftsman Building
in New York. In December 1916, he stopped publishing
Even if Morris and Stickley's dream
of a socialist utopia never came true, though, there
designs have found a brief taste of immortality. L.
& J.G continued to produce furniture for several
more years, though they began to integrate more traditional
designs like cherry colonial reproductions into their
line. Today, Arts and Crafts furniture is still made
under their imprint.
And in recent years, with Arts and
Crafts regaining popularity, a cottage industry of individual
craftsmen has also emerged. Although purists may reject
the new pieces, they do have a clear value: individuals
who can't afford original period pieces can still find
relatively inexpensive reproductions whose craftsmanship
often rivals the originals.