Gustav Stickley, eldest of 11 siblings, was born on March 9, 1858. By the age of 12 he had been a stonemason apprentice and an employee at the Brandt Chair Company, his uncle’s furniture factory. He later opened up a furniture store with four of his brothers in Binghamton, New York, and in 1893 he founded the Stickley and Simons Company with Elgin Simons.
In 1898, having studied the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris, he traveled to England to see their Arts and Crafts ideals in action. Stickley sympathized with their beliefs in social reform and the value of honest craftsmanship. While in England he studied the works of Arts and Crafts designers including C.F.A. Voysey and C.R. Ashbee.
Following his return from England, Stickley stepped onto a new path with heightened ideals and soon became America’s leading advocate of the Arts and Crafts Movement. He bought out his business partner and formed the Gustav Stickley Company.
In the beginning, there was no thought of creating a new style, only a recognition of the fact that we should have in our homes something better suited to our needs and more expressive of our character as a people than imitations of the traditional styles, and a conviction that the best way to get something better was to go directly back to plain principles of construction and apply them to the making of simple, strong, comfortable furniture. – G. Stickley
In 1901 he launched his now famous line of Craftsman furniture and started publishing The Craftsman magazine, the first issue of which he dedicated to William Morris. He organized his workshops in a medieval craft guild style and utilized the name “United Crafts”.
The championed beliefs and ideals such as the following:
- The moral and social value of hand laborers and craft workers
- The moral and spiritual influence of everyday objects in the home
- The integration of art and labor and life
- The parity of applied arts and fine arts
Stickley’s run of popularity and success lasted more than a decade and only began to fall apart in 1913 when he moved his furniture operations to Manhattan, a decision that was poorly timed and financially damaging to the company. Stickley declared bankruptcy and retired in 1915 at the age of 57. Publication of The Craftsman magazine was closed down in 1916.
Although the Arts and Crafts Movement led by Stickley and others died out after a couple of decades, a robust Arts and Crafts revival reared its head later in the 20th century, and a renewed and enthusiastic interest in the ideas and Craftsman furniture of Gustav Stickley is today alive and living strong among wood workers, collectors, and homeowners alike.
The Gustav Stickley Difference
Stickley made his first Arts and Crafts furniture in 1900 when he was 42 years old. He had been in the furniture business since his early teens and had previously made a variety of furniture styles including Victorian, Queen Anne, Windsor, Colonial, and Shaker. He was adept at making furniture efficiently and in high volume.
The Gustav Stickley difference is that his Craftsman furniture was not just furniture, it was Stickley furniture that represented and emanated his own firmly held and practiced beliefs about moral, social, and lifestyle values.
I did not realize at the time that in making those few pieces of strong, simple furniture, I had started a new movement. Others saw it and prophesied a far-reaching development. To me it was only furniture; to them it was religion. And eventually it became religion with me as well. – G. Stickley