By C.J. Hirschfield
A couple of decades ago, I took a half-day off work to visit the first-ever tour of an historic 1909 Arts & Crafts house that featured its original furniture–many pieces by the man considered the father of the American Arts & Crafts movement, Gustav Stickley. Touring the glorious house in the required surgical booties, I was in heaven.
So I confess that the new documentary GUSTAV STICKLEY: AMERICAN CRAFTSMAN felt to me like watching design porn, getting my thrills from seeing the man’s furniture, as well as the textiles, ceramics, lighting, metal and stone work that he inspired. What is it about Stickley’s work that makes it so special?
“Richness does not entail luxury nor simplicity cheapness,” is a quote by the man, and it explains his approach to life as well as his art. His work in wood is typified by its strength, honesty and simplicity, unabashedly announcing how it has been built, with pegs and joints available for all to see. Making “simpler and better things” and living in harmony with nature are concepts that resonate with us today, but at the turn of the last century, his aesthetic was unique, and not immediately or universally embraced.
Director Herb Stratford takes us on a deep dive into the life and work of Stickley, adroitly placing him in the context of his times–the first half of the 20th Century. Archival footage, drawings, photographs as well as interviews with relatives, collectors and curators of his work paint a detailed picture of both the personal and professional aspects of his life.
With only a 12th-grade education, Stickley experienced both remarkable success, and ultimately, bankruptcy and obscurity.
The documentary does an excellent job demonstrating the fact that Stickley wasn’t just about chairs—he was actually selling a lifestyle of simplicity and connection to nature. He lived on a 650-acre farm, which provided fresh, local food to a restaurant in Manhattan on the top level of his huge department store, which also featured rooms furnished in the Arts & Crafts style. To promote his products nationally, he published a monthly magazine that served to drive interest, inform and sell product.
World War I had a devastating impact on the Stickley empire, and bankruptcy ended his retail and wholesale businesses. Stickley’s later years were lived in obscurity, and his death in 1942 went relatively unobserved.
The first major exhibition of his work was held at Princeton in 1972, giving legitimacy to the importance of his work and the Arts & Crafts movement, and driving interest in his work.
In the late 80’s, Stickley furniture was all the rage, attracting celebrity collectors like Steven Spielberg and Richard Gere.
GUSTAV STICKLEY: AMERICAN CRAFTSMAN makes the argument that the man was clearly ahead of his time, and that his work today represents an aesthetic oasis in a complicated and cluttered world.
I wonder what he’d think if he knew that Barbra Streisand paid a record $363,000 for his oak and wrought iron sideboard.
GUSTAV STICKLEY: AMERICAN CRAFTSMAN is playing on Virtual Cinemas across the United States and Canada. 50% of ticket sales go straight back to local independent cinemas. See who is presenting it here.
Check out The Craftsman Bungalow website for many Arts & Crafts houses.
Also Arts & Crafts Home magazine.
You can read complete issues of Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine at Internet Archive.
The entire run of 183 issues can be purchased on a DVD for $7.99 along with related books and magazines at The Classic Archives.
As a passionate fan, collector and student of the American Arts and Crafts Movement—as well as its architects, designers and craftspeople. Telling the story of Gustav Stickley has been on my radar for over twenty years. The challenge was to find a way to tell the remarkable story of Stickley’s life and work briefly and succinctly. Given the incredible depth and breadth of his work, this was no small task as his catalog of accomplishments could easily fill a mini-series. I felt the pressure of capturing the broader story of the Arts and Crafts (A&C) Movement and one of its champions in a way that would be engaging to current aficionados as well as novices. Thankfully, I was able to collaborate with author, biographer and historian David Cathers, who not only offered the depth of his decades-long research and insight but also assisted in making connections to the Arts and Crafts world, Stickley family members and others. The film took four years from start to finish, and our crew’s frequent trips from the Southwest to the East Coast, Midwest and Southeast offered remarkable access to some of the best examples of Stickley’s work in museums and private collections and offered a chance to meet key figures to help tell the story. Sharing Stickley’s legacy has broadened and deepened my appreciation for his work and the collectors, historians and craftspeople now carrying on the traditions he championed, and I am happy to now call many of these people friends.
Herb Stratford is a filmmaker, artist and writer. GUSTAV STICKLEY: AMERICAN CRAFTSMAN is his first feature-length documentary, following several documentary short films. He is also a film critic and film festival programmer, and a nationally recognized leader on the restoration of historic theatres. Watch his short film about the history of Tucson’s Fox Theatre. He is currently developing additional documentary films as well as unscripted television projects. Stratford and his professional film crew are located in Tucson, Arizona. Watch a short TV interview with Stratford on local Tucson TV. Stratford Productions Website
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”