Arts & Craft Furniture - History

Additional Information

  

ARTS AND CRAFTS FURNITURE was the product of a brief but fruitful social movement in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. For a short moment in history, the American people declared they didn't want frilly, highly carved, machine-made stuff. They wanted furniture and decorative objects that were made by hand, with simple straight lines and honest construction. Furniture makers and philosophers gave the American people what they demanded (though sometimes they cre­ated it using machines) until con­sumers' attention turned to World War I. Though the Arts and Crafts period lasted less than 20 years, its societal and stylistic impact is still felt today by scholars, home decorators and wood­workers.

My first encounter with the Arts and Crafts movement occurred more than a decade ago in a foggy field outside Pick­ens, South Carolina. A friend and I had awoken before dawn that day to attend a farmers' market that promised fresh produce, Mennonite baked goods and the occasional piece of furniture pulled from a barn or an attic. As we left the truck, carrying flashlights and heading into the fog, we ran into four men tot­ing shotguns. It was going to be a dan­gerous day ... but not because of the gun-wielding locals. I was facing the precipice of a deep hole from which few ever emerge: I was about to become a hard-core collector of all things Arts and Crafts. The farmer's market was chockfull of men trading guns, military memorabilia, tools and other junk — which is the stuff we were looking for. One old guy had a truck that was almost completely covered in rust, except for the worn wooden gates on the sides that kept the stuff on his flatbed from spilling off the truck and onto the highway. This morning he had a few old dressers, some rusted metal things of unknown origin or use and one rocker. The back of the rocker was covered by an ugly blanket and its runners were soaked with dew but the minute I glimpsed the outlive of the first Arts and Crafts piece I had ever seen, I was hooked. I learned later that the rocker was an old copy of a low-slung L.& J.G. Stickley piece, but all I knew back then was that it was only $30 and so it was going to be mine. I took it home, and my fiancée allowed it to occupy a corner of

the office. A few weeks later, I bought a huge Arts and Crafts settee that con­cealed a massive iron bed frame. It was stuffed with the original horsehair and had been owned by the first African American doctor in Rome, Georgia. And it was only $125. So it, too, became mine.

For the next few years, I spent every spare dime of my disposable income on Arts and Crafts furniture, books, pottery and metalwork. I went to lectures at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. I spent hours poring over the reprints of manufacturers' catalogs that were just then becoming widely available. And I learned every­thing I could about how Arts and Crafts furniture was made: mortise and tenon, quadrilinear post construction, wedged and keyed through-tenons.

Of course, by 1993 it seemed the whole world was doing the same thing. And the newcomers had a lot more money. Soon, the pieces of furniture I wanted were selling at auction for prices that rivaled my yearly salary as a writer. Then, one day, I heard about a woodworking class at the University of Kentucky. The class focused on hand tools and traditional joints. At that mo­ment, I knew I would become a woodworker.

The professor spent a lot of time teaching me and my classmates how to cut a mortise-and-tenon joint with a backsaw and a chisel. I cut mine as fast as I could in a piece of poplar. "Lynn," I asked, "could you show me how to cut a wedged through-tenon?" My instructor looked at me kind of funny. He built high-end modern stuff with lots of plywood and lots of bent laminations.

"Why would you want to learn such an old-fashioned joint?" he asked. I didn't tell him why, because I certainly didn't need one more person interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. But he showed me how to do it with hand tools. Then he showed me how to use a hollow chisel mortiser, and I was hooked.

Too Expensive to Collect

For the average American, authentic Arts and Crafts furniture has become all but unaffordable. Furniture that is signed by its maker and has its original finish and upholstery now sells for thousands of dollars. Cabinetmakers sell authentic reproductions, but the good ones are, again, thousands of dollars. And the stuff available in furniture stores varies somewhere between not entirely bad and unspeakably awful. So, it's official. The only way you are going to be able to afford authentic Arts and Crafts furniture is to build it yourself.

That's where this book comes in. During the last five years, David Thiel, Jim Stuard and I have been building Arts and Crafts furniture for our homes and for publication in Popular Wood­working magazine. Some of these de­signs have been adaptations. For example, the Arts and Crafts sideboard on page 94 owes a huge debt to four or five sideboards  produced by one or another of the Stickley brothers. But instead of creating a muse­um copy, David scaled the propor­tions down a bit to fit into a modern home. Other proj­ects in this book have been taken from photos of original pieces, examples we found in museums or, in the case of the Shop of the Crafters Morris chair, an exact replica was made from the original.

Arts and Crafts furniture is remarkably simple to make. In fact, it's no coincidence that just as the Arts and Crafts movement was coming into its own in 1900, the manual training movement became an important force in schools. It was the first time American schools had sought to teach handicrafts, including woodworking and sewing. In fact, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), one of the spiritual fathers of the movement, urged students in his shop class to build Arts and Crafts-style furniture because of its simple joinery and honest con­struction. So as you embark on building your own American classics, you can rest assured it has been part of the learning experience for woodworkers for more than a century.

Spindle Box Chair

Spindle Box Chair

Simplicity, Function, Strength.

The Arts & Crafts Movement

  

The Arts and Crafts movement itself was founded on good intentions, cloaked in philosophy and popularized through advertising and marketing. The now-popular legend is that the Arts and Crafts movement came about because people at the turn of the century rejected the mass-produced and ornate furnishings of the Victorian "Golden Oak" period and longed for furniture that was honest, simple and made by hand. And while it's true that the founders of the movement had pure intentions, the reality is that most of the people involved in producing Arts and Crafts goods during this period were more concerned with exploiting a furniture fad.

Most historians trace the origin of the American Arts and Crafts movement to Englishmen John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1834-1896), whose name has been given to the Morris chair, though no one has ever been able to convince me he ever even sat in one. According to David M. Cathers' seminal work on the movement, Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, Ruskin believed that the industrial age had dehumanized workers who were slaving in England's early industrial factories. To break the bonds of the machine and create an improved social order, workers needed to return to creating handmade objects. In essence, Ruskin wanted a return to the old medieval guild system.

William Morris agreed and came up with an idea to actually do something about the situation. He founded a company in 1861 that put these principles into practice. The idea was that people would make beautiful objects by hand that the middle class could afford. In this way, the workers' lives would be improved, and the level of taste and quality of goods in the marketplace would also improve. Unfortunately, as you probably well know, making things by hand is slow and very expensive. As it turned out, the only people who could afford Morris' beautiful wares were the very wealthy. So in 1881, Morris allowed machines into his workshop to remove the drudgery of routine tasks for his workers; it also made the furniture more affordable.

Morris' and Ruskin's ideas, however, were flourishing in the minds of the right people in America. Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), the founder of the Roycrofters, and Gustav Stickley traveled to Europe and were exposed to these ideas. They came back to the United States and, within a year or two, a movement was born. Stickley spent some time experimenting with different designs and was producing his first line of Craftsman furniture by 1900. Hubbard founded a printing company. After he expanded his building, he needed to give the carpenters something to do. Legend has it that they built a few tables for the new buildings. When visitors toured his place, they wanted to buy the tables, and so a new furniture company was born. Both companies were more like craftsmen's guilds than traditional cabinet shops of that time period. Both began producing furniture mostly by hand. And both would eventually reject this idea in order to stay in business.

As soon as other furniture makers saw the popularity of this new style, they began to copy it. They developed their own lines of furniture made from white oak, and they used the same marketing tactics employed by Stickley and Hubbard, who preached about the virtues of handmade furniture.

Charles P. Limbert's catalog No. 112 is a good example of some of the puffery that the public was eager to swallow. "Our heavy tops are solid planks," Limbert wrote. "We use no strips on the edges to make them appear heavier." Well, I can tell you with certainty: That declaration is a load of bunk. I've inspected half of a dozen examples of his furniture that use buildup strips on the edges; as a matter of fact, one of them is in my living room. At the Roycroft Shop in East Aurora, New York, visitors were shown the work area, which featured some massive woodworking benches, a lot of hand tools and not a machine in sight. Visitors were never shown the mechanical tenon cutters, saws or sanders. Handmade objects were all the rage. But only the machine could deliver these products at a price the public could afford.

Most woodworkers, like myself, are quick to forgive the furniture makers of that time because we struggle with this same dilemma every day we're in the shop. I enjoy cutting dovetails by hand, but you'd have to pry my %-hp jointer out of my cold, dead hands before I'd give it up. So is my work a product of handwork or is it merely machining the wood to an exact tolerance? Modern woodworking machines have reduced the tedium of many time-consuming tasks. Would you enjoy woodworking if you had to spend three solid days surfacing all your stock with a scrub plane? Probably not. So, if you feel a tinge of guilt as you fire up your hollow chisel mortiser, wondering if you're being true to the movement, you can rest assured that Stickley, Hubbard and others felt exactly the same way. And, in the end, they chose the path that took the drudgery out of construction and allowed the woodworker to enjoy the simple act of creation.


About the Manufacturers

 Probably hundreds of companies were producing Arts and Crafts furniture around the turn of the century, and probably even more are producing it today. To give you a feel for the history behind the pieces in this book, we've included short profiles of the major manufacturers we've highlighted in this book, including the major stylistic elements you'd find on original pieces.

William Morris

William Morris

Stickley Brothers

Who Were the Brothers Stickley?

  

When people see a piece of Arts and Crafts furniture, they inevitably ask if it's a Stickley. It's a horrible question to try to answer. That's because several Stickleys were building furniture at the time. Gustav Stickley had his own firm, Craftsman Workshop. His brothers, Leopold and John George, founded L. & J.G. Stickley. Brother Charles had his own firm called Stickley and Brandt. And all of the brothers were involved, at one time or another, with the Stickley Brothers company.

It's interesting to note that before the Arts and Crafts movement began about 1899, all five of the Stickley brothers were involved in building period reproduction chairs, exactly the kind of stuff that they would later rail against. The first brother to make this switch was, of course, Gustay. Between 1900 and 1916, Gustav's Craftsman Workshops in Eastwood, New York, produced what is now considered the best work of the day. His furniture is characterized by through-tenons that have been reinforced by dowels, bold but pleasing proportions and an absolutely first-class finish. Though most people think of Arts and Crafts furniture as universally dark brown, Gustav offered a finish that was brownish-green and another that had a tinge of gray. I've seen both of these finishes on original and reproduction furniture, and I'm surprised more woodworkers haven't given them a try.

His case pieces are marked by heavy, copper hardware (though he is said to have preferred square oak knobs) and shiplapped backs that have a small chamfer on the seam between the boards. Later examples of his work show that he used a plywood back. All of his furniture was signed, usually with an imprint of a joiner's compass and the Flemish expression, Als ik kan. This translates to As I can, or As best I can.

Gustav also published The Craftsman magazine — a publication devoted to all things Arts and Crafts. While it was a vehicle for selling his goods, The Craftsman also offered complete plans for furniture, a heavy dose of philosophy, as well as floor plans and decorating tips for the ideal home. By 1912, his business was in decline. The world went to war, and when that was over, there was little interest in the Arts and Crafts movement. The style had been supplanted by an interest in Art Deco styles originating in Europe, colonial pieces from America's past and, eventually, modernism that was inspired by machines. Gustav died in 1942 while living with his daughter. Apparently he was still experimenting with finishes to the very end; his descendants found small patches on the underside of the furniture in his room that had been used as sample boards.


L. & J.G. Stickley:

The Other Brothers


Leopold and John George's company in Fayetteville, New York, is worthy of note because it survives to this day. The work that came from L. & J.G. Stickley looked a lot like the furniture from the Craftsman Workshop, with only minor alterations. According to Bruce Johnson's account of the company, L. & J.G. Stickley's copies were of the highest quality. Other imitators of Gustav's furniture would use dowels to assemble the furniture and simply nail a fake tenon end onto a leg to suggest a through-tenon. L. & J.G. Stickley's shop appeared dedicated to quality workmanship.

In fact, in a couple of instances, items produced by L. & J.G. Stickley exceeded the workmanship at Craftsman Workshop. For example, in order to get quartersawn ray flake on all four sides of a table leg, Gustav would glue quartersawn veneer onto the two sides that showed the plain-sawn grain. L. & J.G. Stickley used quadritinear post-construction. This involves taking four pieces of wood and essentially cutting a lock miter on all of the edges to make a table leg. It creates a superior leg.

Unlike their brother Gustav, Leopold and John George were willing to change their furniture line to match their customers' tastes. The company issued its last Arts and Crafts catalog in 1922 (six years after Gustav went out of business) and began producing a line of colonial reproduction furniture in cherry. The company's 1950 catalog is interesting because it reads exactly like the company's 1914 catalog. You only need to replace the word oak with the word cherry:

"It was furniture that took full advantage of the durability and workability of the wild cherry wood ... furniture with broad flat surfaces that revealed the beautiful figure of the wood to advantage and that melted into pools of liquid fire when candlelight gleamed onto its carefully rubbed and polished finish."

After Leopold's death in 1957, his descendants sold the business to Alfred and Aminy Audi, who began producing Arts and Crafts furniture again in 1989.

Other Stickleys

Furniture collectors generally consider the other companies bearing the Stick-ley name to have been manufacturers of lesser furniture, though occasionally one piece will surprise you. One of my favorite pieces of furniture is a Stickley and Brandt side chair with a spring seat. The workmanship and finish rivals that of pieces from the Craftsman Workshop.

Charles P. Limbert Company: Curves and Cutouts

Three of the projects in this book are reproductions from the Charles P. Limbert Company's catalog. Unlike many of the imitators of the day, Limbert's facto ry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, turned out an extensive line of Arts and Crafts furniture that was much less massive and rectilinear than the Stickley lines. Many of Limbert's pieces had a decidedly European influence. Curves and cutouts were common on some pieces. On other pieces, he clearly was trying to take customers away by imitating the Stickleys.

As customers' tastes changed, Limbert was ready. Late in the period he introduced a popular line of "Ebon-oak" furniture, which was made from oak inlaid with ebony. The rocking chair featured on page 36 is from this collection. It is considered one of the finest rockers of the era and commands a high price tag at auction.

Gustoz & Leopold Stickley

Gustoz & Leopold Stickley

Greene & Greene

Architects With a Flair for Furniture

  

It's not really fair to lump Charles and Henry Greene's architectural firm with furniture manufacturers, but it's necessary. The Greene brothers, like Frank Lloyd Wright, were not in the business of producing furniture. However, they wanted to design the furniture that went into the homes they built for wealthy clients. (And when the clients couldn't afford their furniture, they insisted the client purchase furniture from Gustav Stickley.)

Greene & Greene furniture is noteworthy because of its unabashed Asian influence. Instead of oak, Greene and Greene used mahogany as their primary wood. Instead of using straight stretchers on chairs or tables, the Greene brothers' furniture incorporated a "cloud lift," a gentle bump, into the designs. And their signature design element included placing inlaid ebony pegs into the major joints. Sometimes these pegs were structural; sometimes they concealed screws.

Like furniture designed by Wright, Greene & Greene designs are rare and highly sought after. Some pieces fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. In fact, some pieces, such as the Greene & Greene entry bench have disappeared altogether into the black market.


Shop of the Crafters: European Designs for the Midwest Man


We've always had a soft spot in our hearts for furniture from the Shop of the Crafters because the company is located in the same town as our editorial offices: Cincinnati, Ohio. Oscar Onken (1858-1948) began as a picture framer and then in 1904 founded his own furniture company that produced a full line of Arts and Crafts furniture. The furniture was more European in flavor than most, and many pieces relied heavily on inlay or veneer. Unfortunately, the construction techniques Onken used were not always up to par with those used by the Stickleys. His Morris chairs, for example, used dowels at the major joints instead of mortise-and-tenon joints.

The Shop of the Crafters catalog was geared mostly toward men. The furniture itself was massive and overbuilt, sometimes to the point of looking clunky. And Onken's catalog was filled with cellarettes and smoking stands, two of the pieces of furniture reserved for a man's den of the period.


Roycroft Shop: Printing, Metalworking and Woodworking


Elbert Hubbard was a successful soap salesman who turned philosopher after an 1894 encounter with William Morns in England. Hubbard was impressed by Morris' press and his guild of workers who were making furniture, wallpaper, textiles and books. So Hubbard returned to the States and set up a company that imitated Morris' Kelmscott Press. From his shop in East Aurora, New York, Hubbard produced his magazine, The Philistine, and a series of books called Little Journeys, which contained biographies of influential reformers (including Morris), philosophers, musicians and scientists.

His campus and his flamboyant personality attracted the attention of the public, which flocked to his shop. They wanted to buy the furniture they saw there, and he let them. According to Bruce Johnson, it's unlikely that Hubbard designed the furniture made by the Roycroft Shop; that task was handled by others. But the furniture is some of the most massive and well built on the antique market today. And it was considerably more expensive than furniture sold by Gustav Stickley. Even as the demand for the heavy furniture waned and other manufacturers began to shift gears, the Roycrofters stuck to their guns, even after Hubbard himself was drowned in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Furniture making continued until the 1930s, but by 1938 the shop was bankrupt.


Byrdcliffe Arts Colony: Perhaps Earliest Hippies in Woodstock 


The Byrdcliffe Arts Colony was an experimental utopian community founded by Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead (1854-1929) in 1902 in Woodstock, New York. It was to be a place where artists and craftsmen could work together to produce beautiful objects for sale much like a modern-day commune.

It never quite worked out that way. Wendy Kaplan estimates the colony turned out fewer than 50 pieces of furniture. Apparently some of the pieces were so heavy and massive that shipping them was difficult. And because they were made by hand — frequently with carvings — they were unaffordable for most people. By 1905, the founder — Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead — had closed the woodshop.


Isn't Arts and Crafts Just Another Furniture Fad?


In 1990, a friend of mine who had been collecting Arts and Crafts furniture for five years told me that I should wait to purchase a few antique pieces because the bottom of the market was about to fall out. According to him, the Arts and Crafts revival, which had begun in the 1970s, was going to take a serious nosedive, and soon the furniture would be affordable for everyone. At the time, I was eyeing a Shop of the Crafters Morris chair that had been languishing in an Anderson, South Carolina, antiques market for months with a $360 price tag.

"Just wait," he said. "And the price will come down."

I couldn't wait. I bought the chair. And it's lucky I did. The bottom has yet to fall out of the market. The American public has a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for all things Arts and Crafts —from Morris chairs to the plates that cover your light switches. The current revival, according to some estimates, has now lasted longer than the original movement. But, every year, I hear the same refrain from people inside and out of the movement: It's going to end some day, so watch out. Perhaps they're afraid they'll end up like Gustav Stickley did, forgotten and living with his daughter, experimenting with finishes on tiny patches of wood on the underside of his bedroom furniture.

Now, I'm sure that the craze surrounding Arts and Crafts will die down a bit. And maybe some of the people who are producing junk won't be able to sell it anymore. But the important thing to remember here is that the Arts and Crafts style has now been recognized as an important period in furniture history, like the heyday of 18th-century American cabinetmaking. And while colonial reproductions are hard to come by in the superstores, the market for authentic antiques and quality handmade reproductions in this style is as strong as ever. This is likely the future of Arts and Crafts.

So if you enjoy the clean lines and honest workmanship of Arts and Crafts furniture, I think you are going to enjoy this book and relish the furniture you build using it. And if you take extra special care to peg all of your tenons with dowels, if you account for wood movement as best you can, and if you cut each joint as tight as possible, I'm sure your great-grandchildren are going to feel the same way about your furniture too.

Charles & Henry Greene

Charles & Henry Greene