American dream

Gustav Stickley

January 9, 2004

Gustav Stickley's work is not well known in Britain and there are very few opportunities to see examples in public collections outside the US and Canada. However, an exhibition, "International Arts and Crafts", to be shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the spring of 2005, should rectify this.

British design had a fundamental impact on Stickley's work. He was inspired by William Morris but also by young innovative designers such as C. F. A. Voysey.

For just over a decade at the beginning of the 20th century, Stickley dominated the American domestic scene. His flagship Craftsman Building in Manhattan promoted shopping as a relaxing and life-fulfilling experience alongside a children's playroom and a Craftsman restaurant offering healthy dishes with local produce from Stickley's Craftsman Farms. Many of his customers read his magazine The Craftsman . They built their houses to designs sold by his Craftsman House Builders' Club.

Stickley was a complex figure at the centre of the American arts and crafts movement, and he is brought to life by David Cathers' study. Cathers analyses Stickley's metamorphosis from a manufacturer of period reproduction chairs and machine-made furniture to a lifestyle guru. Demand for Stickley's designs continues to flourish in the US.

Cathers reveals the uncomfortable gap between arts and crafts ideas of honesty and Stickley's promotion of himself. He gave little credit to the collaborators who produced innovative design work such as Harvey Ellis and Louise Shrimpton. The Craftsman published articles ghost-written by others as if they were his own homespun philosophy.

The 12 years from 1904 to 1916 were packed with new developments including the launch of Standard Stickley, the quintessential American arts and crafts furniture. Two appendices, one following the evolution of a seminal design and the other providing biographies of his collaborators, are excellent.

The last 25 years of Stickley's life following bankruptcy were spent in semi-obscurity. He was a peculiarly American character, individualistic with a streak of melancholy. He saw himself as an artist and artisan but he was a businessman who grasped the power of marketing. This well-illustrated book is essential reading for students of design history and an inspiration for designers and makers.

Mary Greensted is arts and visitor services manager, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.

Gustav Stickley

Author - David Cathers
Publisher - Phaidon
Pages - 239
Price - £39.95
ISBN - 0 7148 4030 0

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