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."
Stickley initially envisioned Craftsman Farms, built on 650 acres of wooded land between 1908 and 1911, as a farm school for boys. The centerpiece of his self-sufficient "Garden of Eden" was the large log house constructed from chestnut and field stone recycled right from the property. The T-shaped house would serve as a gathering place for workers, students and guests. Its huge kitchen would prepare meals for up to 100.
Ultimately, however, Stickley abandoned his plan for the school, moving his family into the log house instead. Three daughters married in the house. His first grandchild was born there. It's a serene, earthy house -- what one writer in 1911 likened to "walking into a forest."
Today, though in disrepair in places, the house is making a comeback. The logs and stone fireplaces, whitewashed by Stickley's successors, have been brought back almost to their original condition. Windows are being restored. The floors, a light maple, will be treated with a reddish finish Stickley would have used.
There's great flow to the house, the only home Stickley built and designed for his own use. As Stubblebine observes: "You move from pools of light, as if sailing on the ocean going from island to island."
In all, there are 11 structures on the property -- craft workshops, stables, a dairy barn, chicken coop and three cottages -- but the log house is the only building open to the public.
Dream takes shape
It's clear this National Historic Landmark, just one hour from Manhattan, remains a work in progress, and that's what makes it so exciting. There is a real sense of before-and-after. Stickley's master bedroom is untouched, disfigured by peeling paint and added-on wallpaper that's coming down in strips. Yet just across the hall, trimmed in lustrous gumwood, is the Girls' Room, a triumph.
In this place, curator McPher-son was able to expose what she calls "Stickley's naked guts."
A few weeks ago, workers had removed the ceiling, an old wallboard that McPherson compared to "the cardboard you get with a new shirt."
In its place, they hung new wallboard and were about to cover it with muslin, which would then be painted with the silver-gray pigment that Stickley favored for the room. The walls are being papered with silver-gray grass cloth just like Stickley's original choice. And the hearth, with its rich, blue decorative Grueby tiles and brass hood, looks just as it did nearly a century ago.
"This was a dream project for Stickley -- for me too," notes McPherson, who lives on the property in a three-room cottage that Stickley designed. "It's a curator's dream to work with something from start to finish."
As a result of a fair amount of detective work, McPherson and her husband, Tom, executive director of the Craftsman Farms Foundation, have reclaimed many of the Stickley pieces original to the house, found others just like them or had them reproduced.
In 1999, they were able to purchase at auction two corner cabinets owned by Barbra Streisand that Stickley had designed especially for the dining room.
(Streisand paid $363,000 in 1988 for a one-of-a-kind sideboard Stickley made for his Syracuse, N.Y., home in 1902, setting a record for a 20th-century American-made piece of furniture. It was sold years later to an unidentified buyer for $596,500.)
The McPhersons are still on the trail for pieces that once were used in the house or that add to the Stickley legacy. On their wish list: textiles produced for Craftsman Farms that will lay the groundwork for an archival collection; silver or silver-plate serving trays that Stickley designed, and a Craftsman wastebasket.
Inspired by the English
Born in Wisconsin in 1858, Stickley grew up on a farm, dropped out of school at age 13 and learned furniture-making at his uncle's chair factory in Lanesboro, Pa. Until 1898, he was a fairly ordinary late-19th-century furniture-maker, producing walnut parlor suits, and after that, Chippendale reproductions.
But in 1898, Stickley visited England and Europe, where he fell under the thrall of the English Arts and Crafts designers. That same year, he began experimenting with what we now know as his Craftsman, or mission, design -- typically made of American white oak and quarter-sawn to expose the grain.
"It doesn't appeal to everybody. It didn't in its day. It's architecture as furniture, but it's also furniture that's usable. For the most part, it's roomy, comfortable, meant to be lived in and built to last. All of those things touch buttons in people," says Stubblebine, who began collecting Stickley pieces in the late 1970s.
"Each piece speaks on its own as an item," Stubblebine adds. "You know it's a chair. You know it's a table. There is no guessing. It's a clean statement."
Ultimately, Stickley, who died in 1942, influenced generations of furniture designers, architects and craftspeople. Even today, look-alikes inspired by his signature designs are still showing up in stores.
I first learned about him in the early 1970s when my father bought a house in Hagerstown. In it was a discarded Stickley sideboard. A few years ago, my father gave me the sideboard, which serves as the centerpiece of the entryway to my house. I hope it's enjoying the life Stickley would have wanted for it. I love looking at it every day -- and from all angles. Beauty, yes. Simplicity, yes. Organic harmony, yes. Utility, absolutely.
Before I visited Craftsman farms, I read a letter Tom McPherson had written about the place:
"There is nothing abstract about a hewn chestnut log, a hammered doorplate or a stone wall. But they are curious and exciting today in an age of pressed wood furniture, composite fences and sheet rock," he wrote. "Visitors come here with the wonder and awe once reserved for ancient cathedrals, the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David."
At the time, I thought McPherson's comparisons were over the top. The Mona Lisa? I have sat in ancient cathedrals and gaped at the Mona Lisa and David. But after experiencing the house that Stickley built, I decided that -- for me, anyway -- McPherson is right.
An ideal day
7:30 a.m.: Saddle up and hit the road. The drive from Baltimore should take just over three hours.
11 a.m.: Explore the grounds at Craftsman Farms and all the outbuildings before enjoying a tour of the main house. Afterward, browse in the museum shop, located in the grand kitchen that still houses the original -- and massive -- stove.
1:30 p.m.: Enjoy lunch at Alexis, a diner popular with locals, located on Route 10, a few miles from Craftsman Farms. Be prepared to spend some time. The menu is almost novel-length.
3 p.m.: Drive around Mountain Lakes. The houses, many of them Craftsman-style, are incredible. You'll want to move there.
4 p.m.: Saddle up and hit the road -- and hope you don't get stuck in traffic.
7:30 p.m.: Arrive home. As Gustav Stickley himself said: "The word that is best loved in the language of every nation is home, for when a man's home is born out of his heart and developed through his labor and perfected through his sense of beauty, it is the very cornerstone of his life."
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: From Baltimore, follow I-95 north to I-287 north to Exit 39, Route 10 west. Follow Route 10 for three miles. Turn right on Manor Lane, and look for the brown Craftsman Farms signs. Take an immediate right into Craftsman Farms. The trip is about 185 miles.
The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, 2352 Route 10 West, Box 5, Morris Plains, NJ 07950 973-540-1165
* Open for guided 50-minute tours April through Nov. 15, Wednesday through Sunday. Hours: Wednesday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
* Admission: $6, adults; $5, students and seniors; $3, children ages 6 to 12.
* Coming events:
June 1-2 -- "A Vision Restored: Celebrating the Unveiling of the Girls' Bedroom." Curator Beth Ann McPherson holds a discussion on the restoration of the bedroom.
Sept. 20 -- Arts and Crafts Embroidery Beginning Design Workshop. Ann Chaves of Inglenook Textiles gives a workshop and lecture on textile design from the Arts and Crafts period. Fee: $110.
Sept. 21-22 -- Living the Arts and Crafts Lifestyle. Includes crafts fair, lectures, demonstrations and open house.
Nearby point of interest: Mountain Lakes, a tranquil community designed to celebrate the beauty of country life, was developed in the early 1900s. Many of the houses were inspired by Gustav Stickley and feature wide verandas, second-floor sleeping porches and pergolas. Off Route 46, just a few miles from Craftsman Farms. For more information: www.mtnlakes.org
For information about lodging, dining and other activities in the region, contact the Morris County Visitors Center, 6 Court St., Morristown, NJ 07960; www.morristourism.org; 973-631-5151.