The enlightened look of Stickley

There’s no question that the name “Stickley” is synonymous with furniture. If asked the question, “W

There’s no question that the name “Stickley” is synonymous with furniture. If asked the question, “Who is Gustav Stickley?” the majority of people would most likely respond, “A furniture maker.” While that is true, there was much more to this man. The Fenimore Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Gustav Stickley: The Enlightened Home,” which runs through Aug. 10, explores this icon of American decorative arts in the context of how he profoundly influenced American lives and culture in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Fenimore staff had been interested in exhibiting more of American decorative arts, having extensively featured paintings and American Indian arts. When Greg Vadney, a former intern, began working at the newly founded Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, the Cooperstown museum decided to court him for an exhibition, said Michelle Murdock, curator of exhibitions at the Fenimore.

The Stickley Museum, a new endeavor for the L. & J.G. Stickley Co., was excited to embark on its first collaborative venture, and thus the exhibition was born.

Gustav Stickley: The Enlightened Home

WHERE: Fenimore Art Museum, 5978 State Hwy. 80, Cooperstown

WHEN: Through August 10. Through May 12, the museum is open Tues. through Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; beginning May 13, the museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

HOW MUCH: $11 for adults, $9.50 for 65 and over, $5 for ages 7-12, and free for 6 and under.

MORE INFO: 888-547-1450 or

In researching and designing the show, the Fenimore staff put aside any preconceived notions about Gustav Stickley. “We wanted to learn as much as we could cold,” Murdock said. What soon became apparent was Stickley’s philosophy about what it means to have a home and what should be in that home. This philosophy, coupled with examples of Stickley’s work throughout the Arts and Crafts period of his career, formed the basis for the exhibition.

“The Arts and Crafts philosophy was a return to functionality, a reaction to the Victorian way of life, which was kind of a moment of conspicuous consumption in America,” said Vadney, director of the Stickley Museum. While much of Victorian era furniture was elaborate, ornate and served a very specific purpose, Stickley believed that furniture needed to multitask, Murdock said.

Elegant in its simplicity

Stickley’s furniture featured clean, simple lines. For example, Vadney’s favorite piece in the exhibition is a chalet table that has three rectangular legs underneath a circular top. “It’s so simple in its design, but elegant in its simplicity,” Vadney said.

Vadney helped the Fenimore locate the 40-plus pieces of furniture and decorative objects that make up the exhibition. Twenty-seven are on loan from the Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, while others come from Dalton’s American Decorative Arts in Syracuse, The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms in Morris Plains, N.J., and private collections.

The exhibition is divided into two parts in a T-shaped space. One part shows individual pieces that highlight Stickley’s designs. “They epitomize certain furniture forms,” Murdock said. Fenimore staff put similar pieces side by side, for example, three side tables or three chairs, to illustrate how Stickley’s designs evolved over time. The pieces also illustrate the features that make Stickley’s take on the Arts and Crafts movement unique, Vadney.

The other part of the exhibition is divided into two period rooms, a 1904 living room and a 1907 dining room. It allows visitors to put the furniture in context and to experience what it would have been like to live in a Stickley home. “The interior architecture of the home was important,” Vadney said.

Murdock hopes that the period rooms will give visitors the idea that the Stickley home was more than just a piece of furniture. “The Stickley home was an entire unit that he designed with the intent of a family living an easy, comfortable social life based on interaction and communication,” she said.

Stickley homes were designed with open floor plans. “In a craftsman home, Stickley tried to bring the family back together,” Murdock said.

Improving the lot of women

Stickley not only hoped to improve family dynamics, but the status of women as well. The clean, simple lines of his furniture made them easier to clean and move around, thus making less housework for women.

Stickley sought not only to liberate women from housework, but to also promote them professionally, which was a pioneering move in his time. In the company he founded in 1898, United Crafts of Eastwood, New York, Stickley hired women for prominent positions. Louise Shrimpton planned Craftsman home interiors, Blanche Baxter led Stickley’s textile department, and Irene Sargent was the editor for Stickley’s magazine, The Craftsman.

Stickley the businessman

In the early 1900s, Stickley expanded his business to include metalwork, textiles, and house design. “A lot of people have a romanticized idea of who Gustav Stickley was,” Vadney said. “There’s kind of this old rumor that he handmade the furniture, like he was sitting alone in his furniture shop, hand-planing furniture,” he said. In reality, Stickley was a businessman, having begun making furniture some 17 years prior to starting his own company.

As the Arts and Crafts style went out of fashion in the early 1910s and World War I reduced the availability of materials, Stickley’s company declared bankruptcy in 1915. Although his work in the Arts and Crafts movement was only part of his career, his influence was so great that he became known as the creator of the first truly American furniture.

Vadney hopes that visitors will take away from the exhibition some of the Arts and Crafts ideology, as well as the idea that a room should be constructed to benefit life. “Furniture is a very intimate thing, and it shares our lives,” he said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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