A Simple VISION

New Jersey

Curators are restoring the home of furniture maker Gustav Stickley to its spare and functional beauty.

April 14, 2002|By Ellen Uzelac | By Ellen Uzelac,Special to the Sun

Most people know Gustav Stickley for his sturdy and straightforward furniture. But he was far more than a gifted woodworker whose creations fetch heady prices from collectors today.

As one of the best-known spokesmen for the American Arts and Crafts movement a century ago, Stickley was a philosopher, publisher and social critic who championed a return to things simple -- what he called "a fine plainness" to the art of living.

For Stickley fans -- and I'm one of them -- a visit to the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms in Parsippany-Troy Hills Township, N.J., is an imperative this year. The museum, Stickley's former homestead, opened 12 years ago with a leaky roof, whitewashed walls and stripped bare of furnishings. Only now is it coming into its own.

This month, as the museum opens its 2002 season, the 31-acre complex, which includes a main house, outbuildings and grounds, comes closer to what its master designer intended than ever before.

In the past year, gardens that had become overrun with brambles and trees have been reclaimed for future plantings -- flower and vegetable gardens, vineyards and fruit orchards. Original stone walls in front of the main log house have been repaired.

And inside, curator Beth Ann McPherson has been working for three years to replicate Stickley's organic color scheme -- accent colors such as amber, burnt orange, olive green and warm brown.

On June 1 and 2, the museum -- the only one in the nation to pay homage to Stickley -- will unveil the Girls' Room, the second-floor bedroom once shared by his daughters. It is the first room in the house to be completely restored, and it serves as a showcase for how far 21st-century scholarship and restoration techniques have advanced.

The museum's rise in prominence coincides with a nationwide revival of interest in Stickley, who eschewed the elaborate, highly decorated furniture of the Victorian age that preceded him for his Craftsman, or mission, design. His clean, simple lines introduced Americans to the modern decorative arts to come. But, as his own writings illustrate, it was always about more than just furniture design.

"It seemed to me that we were getting to be a thoughtless, extravagant people, fond of show and careless of real value, and that one way to counteract this national tendency was to bring about, if possible, a different standard of what was desirable in our homes," he wrote in 1910 at the height of his career.

"I felt that badly constructed, over-ornate, meaningless furniture . . . was not only bad in itself, but that its presence in the homes of people was an influence that led directly away from the sound qualities which make an honest man and a good citizen."

For Stickley, furniture -- indeed everything in a house -- was meant to be attractive but useful. Beauty, simplicity, utility, organic harmony -- these virtues were the wellspring for every piece he created.

No wonder his furniture speaks to us today.

"In a culture now in which the person at [the bakery] who gets you doughnuts is wearing rubber gloves, this is furniture that says 'touch me.' When people look at a piece that's in pristine shape, the materials are so ... real," notes Barry Sanders, author of A Complex Fate: Gustav Stickley and the Craftsman Movement. "What's also nice about it, for me and lots of other people, is that it makes you stop and look at it. Construction of the furniture is so exposed -- the pegs, mortise and tenon joints. It's almost skeletal in a way, like the very bones of furniture."

Philosophy in a house

During his heyday, Stickley designed and produced not only furniture but lanterns, rugs, bedspreads, fireplace hoods -- even houses. In all, he designed at least 241 homes and published more than 221 house plans in his magazine, The Craftsman, which became the leading voice of the American Arts and Crafts movement.

Ray Stubblebine, a museum trustee, is on the hunt for Stickley's Craftsman houses. So far, he's tracked down 70 of them -- including the house he and his wife, Associated Press reporter Ula Ilnytzky, now live in in Oradell, N.J., about 30 miles from the museum.

A photographer for Reuters news service, Stubblebine says he didn't fully appreciate the uniqueness of Stickley's house at Craftsman Farms until he began to compare it with Stickley's other designs.

As Stubblebine puts it, the 4,000-square-foot log house sums up both Stickley's life and philosophy.

"It's different than the Crafts-man houses he was marketing, while at the same time it's the quintessential house. It's not a mansion. In many ways, it's not much bigger than a large house a middle-class American family would build. But it doesn't feel that way at all. It feels special and unique," he says. "In it, he's captured all of the philosophical elements of the American Arts and Crafts movement, and he's tied it to our past in doing it. It is, after all, a log house. It does reach to our roots."

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