Even a master craftsman like Gustav Stickley could be undone by the fatal combination of high inflation and high interest rates. For a while, he was a leading furniture manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, as well as a pioneering design publisher, but he was undone by soaring consumer prices and a credit crunch. Although largely forgotten by the 1920’s, he would be rediscovered posthumously in the 1960’s (thereabouts). Director Herb Stratford and his co-writer-co-producer, Stickley biographer David Cathers chronicle the designer’s life and legacy in Gustav Stickley, which premieres today on OVID.tv.
After a downturn in his family’s fortunes, the young Stickley found unexpected satisfaction working in his uncle’s furniture factory. Before long, he and two brothers had their own furniture manufacturing company. Most of their output was conventional and their partnership would not last long. However, “Gus” stayed in the business, perfecting his own style.
Directly influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris (the essayist-textile artist, not the talent agent), Stickley developed furniture that rejected the faux-Euro-Chippendale ornamentation that was then commonplace in the American market. His pieces embraced the grain and weightiness of the wood and emphasized the pegs, joints, and fasteners holding them together. They were rugged, but not crude. With the arrival of designer-architect Harvey Ellis, Stickley’s furniture line somewhat moved away from its Spartan austerity, adding decorative wood inlays.
To untrained eyes, vintage Stickley appears like it would be extremely compatible with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie period, especially pieces with the Ellis inlays. Although it was decades before Stickley was reappraised by critics and collectors, his work also looks like it could have been an early, subconscious influence for some of the WPA furniture craftsmen. If you appreciate one, there is a high degree of likelihood you would also appreciate the other.
American Craftsman is about as solid as Stickley’s furniture, but it is not necessarily as stylish. Stratford’s approach is straightforward, unadorned, and admittedly rather conventional. It is talking heads and still photos pretty much all the way through. That is totally fine, but there is nothing inventive to bring in viewers who are not otherwise interested in American design history (if such a crass animal truly exists).
On the other hand, Cathers and company make a compelling case for Stickley’s importance as the prime architect and godfather of the American “Arts and Crafts” movement. They also do a nice job of explaining the aesthetic appeal of his work. Altogether, it is an informative and thoughtful introduction to the man and his body of work. Recommended for art and design patrons, Gustav Stickley, American Craftsman starts streaming today (12/21) on OVID.tv.