Woodworkers as a lot are very opinionated people, just ask us. We all know which tools, types of wood and finishing techniques work the best. Ours, of course, and to tell the truth that’s my opinion too. I have tools that I love, and those that I don’t, techniques that really work great for me and those that don’t, as well as those I really dislike. But one thing I think all woodworkers can agree on is the look and feel of a finely crafted piece of work. If you ever have the opportunity to visit a real woodworking shop or store, not those mass produced Mega stores, but a real store or shop with sawdust on the floor, I will bet you will not be able to resist running your hands along the tops, admiring the fine joinery and the quality finish even if it isn’t your style of furniture.
Now there are many different styles of work, from the plain and simple lines of the Quakers, to the highly decorated Queen Anne pieces with turned legs and curved fronts, to the ultra modern pieces that infuse wood and other materials. In my mind the best style is Arts and Craft.
I think there is a lot of agreement with that choice. One of the things I have learned since I began to research the Arts and Craft movement is that the style is not limited to just the furniture. It’s a whole package which can encompass your entire house. If you doubt this, go to your local DIY store, where you will find an ever increasing supply of Hardwood Oak moldings and trim. Or go to any of the thousands of furniture stores, and even though a lot of the stuff is particle board and laminate, a lot of the designs have very strong Arts and Craft influences.
When we moved into our current home, we had the standard builder’s grade painted 1 3/8” molding on every door and window. As time and budget has allowed, we have replaced every single piece of it with wide, stained oak molding. We recently replaced the stair risers and treads with oak, and most of the carpet has found its way to the junk yard. Why, because we love the look and feel of real wood. Most of the furniture I make is either a reproduction of an Arts and Craft piece, or a variant of it. The furniture that we have purchased is either Leather or Danish Modern.
Both the Leather and Danish Modern blend well with the Arts and Craft design, Most of the early work done by Gustav Stickley, the father of the Arts and Craft movement in America, was done using the natural beauty of the Wood and Leather. The only difference I can see between the Arts and Craft and the Danish Modern, is the choice of finish. The original Arts and Craft pieces tended to be rather dark, while the Danish Modern is a light, oil based finish. Both styles of furniture feature simple lines and honest craftsmanship. Some of the Danish pieces are too eccentric for my personal taste, but I have to admire the craftsmanship.
The Arts and Craft Movement in America can trace its humble beginning back to late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Most of the furniture of the era was being mass produced, highly decorative, and to some, shabby in appearance and workmanship. While at the same time, Europe was under going a cultural revolution, lead chiefly by William Morris, who later became infamous for his “Morris Chair”, and fellow Britisher John Ruskin, against this mass produced, and highly decorated style of furniture. These followers of the Arts and Craft Movement preached a return to handcrafted styles and a philosophy of a simpler life. The young American, Gustav Stickley, during a trip to Europe, became a disciple of the movement and the world of woodworking and furniture in America was forever changed.
Upon his return to America, Gustav opened his “Craftsman Store”, in 1898, where he perfected his unique design. His work was based on rectilinear designs, featuring mortise and tenon joinery, or dovetails. These joints were celebrated, not hidden, as it was in the Victorian pieces. One of the tenants that Gustav believed in was hand craftsman. This ultimately led to his company’s demise. In 1916, a short 18 years after it inception, Gustav Stickley filed for Bankruptcy.
While his stay in business was short, Gustav’s legacy lives on today. Many of his designs are still copied and his original pieces now are in museums or private collections. Their monetary value is unreachable for most.
Gustav had two younger brothers, Leopold and John George, who were also very accomplished craftsman. Together they opened their own company, “L & JG Stickley, Inc” in 1904. The L & JG Stickley Company is still in business today. Although it is no longer held by the Stickley Family, they still produce high quality furniture of the Arts and Craft era. Leopold and John George also believed in hand crafting the furniture, but understood that machines could be used to get the piece to the point that hand workmanship could complete the piece.
The Stickley’s were not opposed to machinery, they just the rejected the sloppy workmanship that mass production and machines brought to the work place. A concept that still plagues some work places over 100 years later, perhaps it’s not too late to learn from Leopold and John George.
Today we would call this a “strong work ethic”, but what ever you call it, it worked, because in 1918, Leopold and John George purchased the bankrupt “Craftsman Store”. Leopold and John George are also responsible for the 1905 introduction of the Mission Oak design that is still very much in vogue today. And in 1922, they introduced their “Cherry Valley Collection”.
A lot of other names have been associated with the Arts and Craft Movement, too many to name. However, in my mind, no discussion would be complete without adding the names, “Greene & Greene”. Charles and Henry Greene were not actually furniture builders, but rather Architects, along the line of Frank Lloyd Wright. When commissioned to design a home, they also designed the furniture to go in the home, this was a strict requirement. If the client could not afford their furniture, Greene and Greene would require that they purchase furniture from Gustav Stickley. The Greene and Greene designs varied from the traditional Arts and Craft, their choice of wood was Mahogany, instead of Oak, and instead of straight stretchers, their Asian influenced designs have a “Cloud Lift “. Often the Cloud Lift was repeated in the bottom of the apron. Today’s woodworkers can replicate the Cloud Lift detail with a template and a router. I marvel at the skill it took the original craftsman to do this.
Another design element that identifies the Greene and Greene style is the use of inlaid ebony pegs into major joints. These pegs were either decorative, when used to cover a screw, or structural. After a mortise and tenon were fitted and glued in place, a hole was made in the side of the leg into the tenon. A corresponding ebony peg was inserted into the hole, creating incredible strength. The ends of the pegs were shaped to add visual interest.
Greene and Greene home and furniture designs were published in a magazine, created by Gustav Stickley, fittingly enough named “The Craftsman”. The magazine was also an avenue for Gustav to spread his gospel regarding all manners of life. If you were to compare the writing in “the Craftsman” to those of today’s DIY magazines, you would truly note that the authors of the Arts and Craft movement were more renaissance men than strictly woodworkers. They shared their beliefs on all matters of life.
There has been some confusion about the name, Craftsman home. Some feel that the name represents the design concepts of the Arts and Craft Movement, while other think of the “Craftsman Home” sold by Sears. From about 1908 to 1940, Sears manufactured a line of stick built homes that were sold from a catalog and delivered to the job site with all of the pieces cut and labeled. Sears had over 400 stock designs, but allowed individual customers to modify any of the Plans. Sears reportedly sold some where between 70 and 75 thousand of these homes.
Out of the Arts and Craft movement, also came some interesting, and some what dangerous, methods of finishing. Gustav Stickley and his followers advocated “Fuming” as the finish of choice. Now remember, this was long before, OSHA, and the workers rights movements. The completed pieces were placed in an “airtight” room, and exposed to high strength ammonia. The tannins in Oak, will react to the ammonia, and color the wood. This is a practice not in use anymore in industry, as working with the high strength ammonia is a health risk. Just like I marvel at the craftsmanship, I often think about the workers who day after day carried the wood into the fuming rooms, having little or no breathing protection.
What actually killed the original Arts and Craft Movement? Historians tell us that World War One was the Death knell to the movement. With the country at War, most of the able bodied men left the factories and shops in support the war effort, including the craftsmen and artisans of the day. Factory productions were switched to supporting this effort, leaving few resources for furniture manufacturing that wasn’t strictly functional. Returning GI’s, brought back with them a new love for the Art Deco look which was very popular in Europe.
I think that there are probably two other factors that created the end of the movement, the 1930’s brought about the great depression, where people were much more concerned about actual survival, then obtaining quality furniture. The second thing is a problem that still haunts us today, a knowledge drain.
With the skilled craftsman leaving to go to the Europe and the Asian theaters of War, their knowledge left with them. The woodworking guilds closed down as the craftsmen left and those who took their places in the workplace were unskilled laborers. As woodworkers, I think we can all agree that the difference between an average woodworker and a craftsperson, is often training under a skilled master woodworker.
So there you have it. I look for every book or article I can find about the Arts and Craft movement. Not because I want to build everything in the book, I don’t have the room, time or budget for that, but because I love the style. If you’re new to the Arts and Craft style, you came at a good time, recently there has been a renewed interest, and with that brings more information, books, and CD’s. Go find a project you like, and work at it, but be careful, you might get hooked on the style.