Arts and Crafts furniture and furnishings made from the late 1890s to just after World War I may be the style statement of the 1990s. "It's not a coincidence that after the S&L scandal and Donald Trump got his comeuppance people should respond to Arts and Crafts," says Chicago dealer Michael FitzSimmons. "This furniture so directly and so intrinsically declares that it is honest and straightforward."
The resurgence of interest in the Arts and Crafts movement parallels the values that brought it to life: a reaction against adornment and conspicuous consumption, joined with an emphasis on the virtues and comforts of home and family, respect for the natural environment and concern about the socio-economic condition of working people. Long dubbed "mission furniture," it's not clear if that moniker means furniture with a social mission or a style reminiscent of spartan early Spanish missions in California.
The Arts and Crafts ethos and style were born in England, inspired by late-19th century social philosopher John Ruskin and designer-reformer William Morris (after whom the ubiquitous Morris chair is named). They spread a utopian view of a simpler, pre-industrial and rustic medieval lifestyle in which goods were handcrafted and utilitarian objects were artistic.
Several American furniture manufacturers, including Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), discovered Arts and Crafts design and philosophy on visits to England. What they brought home took on a distinctly vernacular Puritan flavor, and several converts formed craft communities to produce such goods. With American capitalist flair, Stickley introduced at the 1900 Grand Rapids Furniture Fair his line of inexpensive, chaste, solid and functional furniture. A year later he launched a monthly magazine called The Craftsman to spread the gospel, centered, of course, on decorating with his furnishings.
The foundation for the current popularity of Arts and Crafts was laid 20 years ago when a Princeton University Art Museum
exhibition reintroduced Americans to furniture made of native quarter-sawn oak, with visibly tenoned joints and hand-beaten copper hardware. Since then, the names of Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Workshop, Harvey Ellis, the Roycrofters, Charles Limbert, and Gustav's brothers' firms, Stickley Bros. Co. and L. and J. G. Stickley, have been become familiar, along with hosts ** of other artist-craftsmen who made art pottery, metalwork, lamps, stained glass and textiles.
As interest moved from museum to marketplace, celebrity collectors and decorators from Hollywood to the Hamptons created shrines to St. Gustav, spending huge sums at auction for relics marked by their makers and with their original finish.
Prices rose steadily, 10 percent to 20 percent a year, and by April 1988 they were sky-high for Gustav Stickley pieces on the auction block at Skinner's in Bolton, Mass. A desk with subtle refinements by architect Harvey Ellis reached $102,300, a small table with a Grueby tile top went for $53,900, a rare five-lamp lighting fixture sold for $61,600, and a slant-arm spindle Morris chair fetched $15,400. At a Christie's auction in New York in December 1988, Barbara Streisand paid a record sum for an acknowledged masterwork, $363,000 for the sideboard from Gustav Stickley's own dining room.
And then the top of the market cooled off quicker than it had heated up, some prices dropping 50 percent or more by 1991, partly because news of high prices had brought out quantities of Arts and Crafts furniture. What once was thought rare no longer was quite so rare.
Despite the impression it gives, most Arts and Crafts furniture was not hand-made. Mass-produced and stocked in stores nationally, it was ordered by number from catalogs and marketed to a growing middle class. (Collectors and dealers identify designs by their numbers from the original catalogs, several of which have been reprinted.)
Today, people discovering Arts and Crafts are once again finding reasonable prices both for fine signed furniture and decorations and for less costly "generic" unlabeled pieces. According to San Francisco dealer Isak Lindenauer, "Arts and Crafts has both the warmth of being old and it's modern in design, so the collector feels the connection to the past but is living in the here and now."
Mr. FitzSimmons in Chicago says there's plenty of Arts and Crafts furniture to go around, and many areas
and makers to be explored. "You can go to any home store and buy a new dining room chair for $400, and it's lost 50 percent of its value before the cash register drawer has closed. But I can sell you an original Gustav Stickley side chair for $450."
More than 1,200 collectors, dealers, and scholars are expected to gather from February 21 through 23 at the Fifth Annual Arts and Crafts Conference and Antique Show at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., which was furnished in 1913 in the Arts and Crafts style.
Robert Judson Clark will speak on "The Princeton Exhibition, a 20-Year Retrospective," and a new exhibit, "Arts & Crafts Fakes and Frauds," will debut. A weekend package costs $296, double occupancy. For more information call Grove Park at (800) 438-5800.
Collectors may find helpful "The Official Identification and Price
Guide to Arts and Crafts," by Bruce Johnson (House of Collectibles, 1988, $12.95 -- an update is in the works) and "The Arts and Crafts Quarterly" (order from dealer-auctioneer David Rago, 17 South Main St., Lambertville, N.J. 08530, $20 for 4 issues, post-paid). A lavishly illustrated and well- organized and researched book, "American Arts & Crafts, Virtue in Design," by Leslie Greene Bowman (Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Bulfinch Press, 1990, $55), catalogs the outstanding Palevsky/Evans Collection.