Pleasure In Creation

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In 1898 Gustav Stickley—to that point a furniture maker in the Queen Anne and Shaker styles—traveled to Britain, where he saw the furniture designs of two architects working in the Ruskin and Morris tradition. Within three years, in the village of Eastwood, New York, he turned his workshop into a profit-sharing guild, began producing a new line of what he would call “Craftsman” furniture, and started his own magazine. Stickley’s The Craftsman (which devoted its first issues to Ruskin and to Morris) became the bible of American arts and crafts. Unlike Hubbard, Stickley cultivated a manner that suggested, if not a monk’s piety, at least a schoolmaster’s judiciousness. His magazine showed less balance, however—describing him as a man who “rose, as it were, out of the forests, in answer to the cry: ‘Who shall deliver us from...the thralldom of extravagance, the hereditament of conventions?’ ”

Stickley and Hubbard vied not merely in self-promotion. From upstate New York villages they competed also to market a solid, spare furniture—distinctly American and built to last until the Dark Ages come again. Its strong lines seemed determined to make the graceful legs of a Queen Anne chair look the product of feminized aristocracy. It made even Shaker furniture look somewhat effete. (The language of male-female struggle was not incidental to The Craftsman. It urged men to stamp simplicity on home design, which, it claimed, largely due to the “extraordinary progress of womankind,” had “run riot” with hysterical furnishings.)

A typical Stickley chair stood foursquare on rectangular pillars of oak, seeming as much architecture as furniture. From pillar to pillar stretched horizontal joists—made of full-grained oak that suggested the beauty of dark marble. Where pillar met joist they interpenetrated, then to be again penetrated by dowels, all locking together in an indestructible oaken puzzle. The lockjoints’ conspicuous protrusions constituted virtually all of the chair’s “decorative effects,” for, as The Craftsman suggested, a designer who gave way to nonfunctional decoration was on a slippery slope; “ornament,” it said, “grows as it goes, a snowball on a muddy road.”

Stickley and Hubbard were producing furniture intended to do more than rest the weary, as Stickley’s earliest known advertisement suggests: it carried the heading “Furniture as an Educator” and proclaimed that its product would “help to make life better and truer by its perfect sincerity.” Their furniture became known as “mission oak,” a name with an obscure history. Although resisted by both Stickley and Hubbard (who preferred their own trademarks), the name persisted, perhaps because it recalled the spare Franciscan missions of California, or perhaps because it implied that this furniture had a social mission—to reform American taste.

While Hubbard’s and Stickley’s craftsmen worked in their communities, the arts-and-crafts aesthetic was spreading across America. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, arts-and-crafts societies sprang into existence in such cities as Boston, Chicago, and New York, and in such towns as Deerfield, Massachusetts. In the same period, arts-and-crafts guilds and arts-and-crafts communities took shape, often beginning with a rosy vision of rural work and with names like Rose Valley and New Clairvaux. Many modeled themselves to some extent on Morris’s Merton Abbey and took inspiration from Ruskin’s craftsman of the Middle Ages.

 
 
 

The homage to the medieval showed not just in craft communities but in craft itself, and most heavily in metalwork. A Craftsman article of 1906, for instance, evoked fantasies of medieval knights using wrought-iron keys to rescue maidens locked behind wrought-iron bars. As for the medieval worker’s artistry, The Craftsman assured its readers that “all the modern appliances for manipulating iron” could not match it. One artist who shared this view was Samuel Yellin, a native of Poland who emigrated to Philadelphia in 1906. He studied medieval originals for inspiration and insisted that good work emerged only from the “heat of creation” generated when man pounded hammer on anvil.

This wrought-by-hand, one-of-a-kind aesthetic did not stop at guilds and specialty shops. It entered the factories of major manufacturers. By the late 1890s one of America’s great silver companies, the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island, had opened a school to train makers of a special line of silverware—shaped piece by piece with hammers and based on arts-andcrafts ideals. Gorham sold its expensive new line as Martelé (in French, “hammered”).