Craftsman style furniture, loosely speaking, is any furniture based on the designs and original pieces of Gustav Stickley produced between 1900 and 1916.
More strictly speaking, Craftsman furniture is any furniture actually made by Gustav Stickley and his employees, or authentic reproductions of his designs.
Craftsman is actually the trade name that Stickley chose for his line of Arts and Crafts furniture and for his magazine, The Craftsman.
Common usage of the term Craftsman has grown far and wide and has been much generalized, and much the same as the term Mission, it has been applied to all facets of architecture, interior design and decorative arts.
However, only furniture designed and produced by Gustav Stickley and his companies can purely be called Craftsman furniture. The definition should only be extended to faithful and accurate reproductions of Stickley designs and to those Arts and Crafts revival designs influenced authentically by Stickley originals. Anything beyond that should be labeled Arts and Crafts furniture.
What is Craftsman Furniture?
Craftsman furniture is one of the most prominent types of Arts and Crafts furniture. Craftsman homes and furniture designs became popular in the late 19th century when Stickley founded The Craftsman magazine and used it to promote his products and the Arts and Crafts Movement as a whole.
The Greene and Greene Company of Gamble House fame presented furniture designs in that magazine along with many other furniture designers and builders of the Arts and Crafts Movement era. These designs were situated alongside architectural and interior designs for Craftsman style homes.
Craftsman style furniture is more than an aesthetic preference. Those who purchase Craftsman homes and Craftsman furniture typically believe in the ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement such as simplicity, functionality, durability, and honest design and construction.
Furniture designed true to the Craftsman movement is created from sturdy natural woods, with oak most often being the wood of choice. It often has other Arts and Crafts style elements such as art glass, ceramic tile, handmade metal hardware, and hand tooled leather surfaces. Often created with no or minimal modern machinery, the emphasis is placed on handcraftsmanship and basic woodworking tools.
Craftsman furniture is also simplistic by nature. Pieces are designed for durability rather than aesthetic pleasure. This means most pieces of Craftsman furniture do not include ornamental features that do not contribute to the functionality of the piece. The focus is on integrity of design and craftsmanship, rather than decorative appearance.
In the words of Gustav Stickley…
“Craftsman furniture is … as perfectly finished as was the work of the old cabinet-makers in the days of the handicrafts. One of its chief claims to beauty is its fine plainness, but this means neither crudity nor lack of finish, any more than the strong and massive designs mean clumsiness. In this lies the difference between Craftsman furniture and the many imitations of it found on the market under various names.”
How to Identify Craftsman Style Furniture
Craftsman furniture is best identified by the materials from which it is made, and its size, shape, weight, and durability. Furniture designed in the spirit of Craftsman ideal is typically made from solid natural wood that creates heavy furniture pieces which are substantial in size and weight compared to shoddy mass-produced furniture made with cheaper materials.
Craftsman style furniture designs incorporate straight, clean lines without many curved or ornamental features. Small differences may be seen from one piece to another, which reflects the focus on handcraftsmanship. Craftsman furniture gains some of its value by being created by the hands of talented craftsmen. It is not mass-produced on industrial machinery.
Common Craftsman Furniture Features
Gustav Stickley gave Craftsman furniture its unique identifying qualities. Popular modern day craftsmen may leave their own identifying marks on their furniture pieces, but there are certain features that all Craftsman style furniture share. The following is a list of the common characteristics of Craftsman designed and built furniture, but not every piece you encounter will include every point on the list.
- heavy “structural” design
- sturdy natural wood, predominantly white quarter-sawn oak
- clean, straight lines
- severe rectilinearity
- vertical slats uniformly spaced
- well proportioned shapes and dimensions
- tenon-and-key construction
- doweled joints
- exposed structural elements such as tenons and dowels
- chamfered boards splined together as panels
- hand-hammered metal (copper, pewter, iron) pulls, latches, screws, and other hardware
- corbels supporting heavy table edges and chair arms
- straight legs and arms
- slatted backs and sides
- square or round wooden knobs
- canvas, dyed leather, and other high quality accessory features
- built for years (and generations) of durability and comfort
- no ornamentation or applied decorations
- finishes included ammonia fuming and clear coatings
Finding Craftsman Furniture Today
If you are looking for Craftsman style furniture you are not limited to original antiques. The original stuff is out there if that is what you want, but there are also modern day craftsmen and furniture builders who continue to create furniture in the authentic Craftsman style.
If you are prepared to purchase custom made Craftsman furniture, you probably want to buy from a proven craftsman. There are many professionals capable of building authentic Craftsman reproductions as well as personalized designs.
Some make exact reproductions of Stickley furniture. Others use traditional design elements of Craftsman originals but add their own unique design twists. It will always be made with high quality natural woods and may include glass, tile, pewter, or copper – materials often used in original Arts and Crafts furniture.