“Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman – Still alive in spirit [MOVIE REVIEW]

Gustav Stickley and his wife, Eda Ann. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

Gustav Stickley and his wife Eda Ann. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

“Gustav Stickley,” a reverential documentary by Herb Stratford, tracks the life and influence of an American master.

Stickley, born in 1858, worked in his uncle’s furniture factory to help support his widowed mother. Learning the rudiments of his trade, he was profoundly influenced by William Morris, the English founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris believed that the furnishings of one’s home were the underpinning of a lifestyle. Stickley strove to embody that principle in what would be his own furniture designs executed in his own workshops and factory. He very much believed that coordinated architectural details created a lifestyle.

With various partners he formed different businesses that supported his “lifestyle” premise. He greatly expanded his furniture business and soon founded Arts and Crafts magazine to promote his lifestyle ethos, the arts and crafts movement in general, and his own furniture in particular.

Stickley realized that he needed the stimulation of a larger world, or at least larger than the one in Pennsylvania where he grew up and in Syracuse, New York where he was then living. He moved his business to Manhattan and his family to New Jersey to Craftsman Farms (now Parsippany) where he grew vegetables, planted orchards, kept cows and chicken, all meant to be brought to market.

In Manhattan, he created the first “one-stop” shopping center for architecture and design in his new twelve-story Craftsman Building. On the first floor one could discuss building plans with an architect, and the upper floors housed everything needed for that future home, such as furniture, draperies, appliances, floor coverings, linen, and more. And on the top floor, a restaurant that may have been the first example of farm to table because all of the products were supplied by Craftsman Farms.

But his designs, so keenly sought at the beginning of the 20th century, fell prey to changing tastes and the inflation and financial hardship brought on by World War I. By 1915 he filed for bankruptcy and discontinued publication of American Craftsman magazine in 1916. Soon after, he had to sell Craftsman Farms. He lived his final years with one of his daughters in Syracuse. She had bought the old family home where she had grown up. Now, he was now a guest in the house he had designed and built for his family almost 15 years before.

Stickley lived the rest of his life puttering with and experimenting on surface finishings, an unsuccessful project. He died a forgotten man in 1942.

Gustav Stickley-Sideboard. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

The second half of the film is about the resurgence of Arts and Crafts furniture and its market value. It was not until the late 60’s that there was any interest in the style. At that time, Stickley’s beautifully crafted pieces could be had for practically nothing. Antique dealers were uninterested in anything less than 100 years old and ridiculed the rubes who searched for pieces at swap meets. By the 80s the market caught up and now they are stratospherically priced for only the most wealthy collectors. Adding to the appreciation of the art form, as well as the intense interest of collectors, has been the number of recent touring arts and crafts exhibitions in national museums.

Of most interest are the experts on Stickley and his furnishings. A recently opened Stickley Museum in Fayetteville, New York housed in the original Stickley factory and the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms are excellent repositories of the arts and crafts movement in general and Stickley’s work in particular.

Stickley’s rise was much like a comet. He captured a movement, rose quickly on his artistic and marketing skills and then sank into obscurity, torpedoed as much by bad luck as by changing tastes. Furnishings may, indeed, promote a lifestyle, but the vision of lifestyle changes with the furnishings.

There isn’t really enough substance here for a full length documentary; the padding and fluff are very much in evidence. Still, this is a pleasant film and weighing in at just over an hour, you won’t regret the time spent watching it.

Opening March 5 at the Laemmle virtual theaters.




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