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The Bungalow: American Arts & crafts Homes
by Paul Duchscherer & Douglas Keister


Inside the Bungalow: American Arts & Crafts Interiors
by Paul Duchscherer & Douglas Keister


American Bungalow Style
by Robert Winter & Alexander Vertikoff


A Complex Fate: Gustav Stickley and the Craftsman Movement
by Barry Sanders


Gustav Stickley the Craftsman
by Mary Ann Smith



Illustration from The Craftsman, May 1903

Collecting the Past

By 11:30 on this Saturday morning, the parking lot of Richmond's Showplace Exhibition Center is nearly full. Indeed, given its impossibly large size, it should be considered full already. Cars circle around and around, their drivers refusing to accept the prospect of a long walk from the back rows. But time is working against them. Inside, nearly two hundred antiques dealers have set up booths, and each one contains something unique, something that might slip away forever, if the car isn't parked soon.

Eventually, the balance is decided. The pull is too great. Cars are parked in the back, people emerge and race, perhaps unconsciously, against the others who, like them, have to cross the long lot before seeking gratification through objects of the past.


Inside, for all its sprawling size, the Showplace produces only the low-level hum a large room must produce when it holds so many largely silent people. Their silence is peculiar—there are few smiles, but they don't appear unhappy. Actually, for lack of a better word, they look concerned. Or possibly determined. Concerned about finding that perfect something, perhaps, or concerned with taking in so much information in so little space (most of the booths aren't much larger than a '57 Chevy, bumper to bumper), or just determined not to telegraph too much interest before prices are negotiated.

The audience is generally cross-over: a few yuppies, a few lower-middle class, and a lot of mother-daughter teams in both categories. Indeed, the number of mother-daughter teams is staggering. Like everyone else, they say little, but they look comfortable enough. For the equivalent bonding on the male side, you'd have to watch fathers and sons at hunting clubs—guns lowered but ready, the eyes scanning bushes for the kill.


The Showplace will not receive any design awards. Its floors are cement, its lighting fluorescent. It's up to the dealers to set the mood for their wares. The range in booth set-ups is as various as the goods they contain. Some are nothing more than simple, cloth-covered tables. Others are elaborate, homey areas defined by big rugs, screens, embroidery, prints and mirrors.

The set-ups seem largely determined by their wares. The Victorian booths are naturally the most elaborate. The booths selling country pine and golden oak pieces could be described as quaint, cute or claustrophobic, depending on one's tastes. Almost everyone builds walls around their booths. One dealer does it with a bookcase, another with a pegboard stand.

Near the front (in fact, it's the first booth you see coming in), Nancy Hunt's booth is exemplary for its coordination of booth-style and furniture. Hunt sells American Arts and Crafts furniture, pottery, metalwork and linen from the early 1900s, and, as you might expect, her set-up is understated but well-proportioned (which briefly but accurately describes the Arts and Crafts movement in general—click here to read "The Arts & Crafts Movement: A Short History of a Brief Era.").

Two low tables covered with a black fabric are used to define the booth's back and inner walls. Along the side table are set two cases of Mexican jewelry; on the back table rests a three-tiered pedestal on which are arranged twenty-six pieces of Arts and Crafts pottery (prices range from a $25 Paul Revere saucer to a $395 Grueby bowl to a $875 artist-signed Rookwood vase). Also on the back table is an assortment of Arts and Crafts accessories: a leather purse from the turn of the century ($68), a Trent tile (ca. 1900, $28), an original Roycroft poster (December 1895, $295 framed, $195 unframed), a box of tiny leather books ($5.50 each) and a pair of Roycroft copper bookends ($195).

On the floor in front of the tables is a red Oriental rug on which sits a signed L. & J.G. Stickley rocker ($895) and a signed L. & J.G. clip-corner tea table ($1550). The table's top has been refinished, but because smaller Arts and Crafts pieces are rare, the price is good. (In an appropriately Darwinian way, smaller pieces tended to suffer more abuse than larger, less-easily moved pieces, and hence fewer have survived. Ironically, this increases their value, which would run contrary to evolutionary theory, but not economic theory.)


At first glance, the rocker is remarkable chiefly for one feature: it is unremarkable. Or rather, it seems to be it. For many of the people who walk up to the rocker and give it a nudge, there is probably no vocabulary to describe its understated form. To remark, there must be features to be remarked upon. And, at first glance, the rocker seems to have none.

That, I suspect, is why so many people give it a nudge: they want to see it rock, to make it do something familiar, something which will declare it to be a familiar object. When the French architect Le Corbusier exhibited his modern house at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925, it also went unremarked, largely because there seemed to be so little to it—a plain, white box that held a few pieces of cheap, mass-produced furniture. Though Le Corbusier's modernism and the Arts and Crafts movement were a generation apart and are markedly different in their construction philosophy, they share one important quality: they overwhelmed viewers with their simplicity and stripped-down qualities.

Of course, in 1925 Le Corbusier's design was new. The Stickley rocker, and most other examples of the Arts and Crafts movement, are now over eighty-five years old. So why does it strike so many shoppers as unusual?


Actually, if we were to transport the rocker from the Showplace and put it back into its proper context—the furnished Arts and Crafts home—it would once again feel familiar—and comfortable. Its stern lines would be softened by linen pillows, linen and muslin curtains, and warm, geometrically patterned rugs. Arts and Crafts interiors are a delicate balance between simple lines and comfortable textures. Take away one and you'll miss the effect altogether. "The pottery and metalwork," Hunt points out, "are really important. The subtle play of color and the organic ornament and the structure of the piece is the basis of Arts and Crafts design."

If we look past the rocker's simple lines, though, we discover a level of sophistication not often found in more obviously ostentatious furniture. Let's begin, as an example, with its color—deep red-brown. It is quiet and mellow, yet rich and, if such a thing is possible in furniture, wise. It seems to present its age gracefully, as if it were the exalted elder in a Confucian household. This effect, it should be noted, is not accidental.

To give the oak an aged appearance, the Stickleys (and many of the better Arts and Crafts manufacturers) exposed the unfinished wood to vats of ammonia in large tents. The ammonia acts on the tannic acids in the wood and mellows it. (The process is called fuming.) The Stickleys' intent was to make their furniture seem aged fresh off the carpenter's bench. (This was in keeping with the demand for antique finishes that had its roots in the Gothic Revival and English Arts and Crafts movement of the mid- to late-nineteenth century.)

Then there's the rocker's design: a plain leather spring cushion (L. & J.G. Stickley were the first to incorporate automobile spring cushions into their furniture), low, unadorned arms, an unpadded, subtly curved back defined by a handful of broad, vertical slats. Like the best examples of Arts and Crafts furniture, it is ultimately a study in proportion, and despite intuitive expectations, its simplicity makes successful execution all the more difficult. "It takes a lot to pull off something simple," Hunt says. "When you're looking at a piece that's well-designed, the proportions seem to fit. You can get a very high-style eighteenth or even nineteenth century chair, but to me, it just doesn't feel comfortable to live with. It takes a little more knowledge to understand what the Stickley rocker is about."

Finally, there is the rocker's construction. The arms are attached in the front with mortises and tenons (that is, the vertical support actually extrudes through the arm, rather than being held from the bottom with screws), and the most-stressed joints are held in place by pin construction. This rocker is unusual in that the top rail on the back is held in place by two dowels—an extra measure of security.

As Hunt points out, the pinned construction and mortise-and-tenon joinery ultimately add to the rocker's aesthetic qualities. "The structural elements," she says, "are the design."


The heavy, stable manufacturing methods used in the Arts and Crafts movement were, like their fumed finishes, a conscious evocation of the sturdy work of the medieval guilds. Gustav Stickley, the elder Stickley brother who is largely responsible for making Arts and Crafts an American phenomenon, was—like many practitioners of both English and American Arts and Crafts—a socialist who saw himself as something of an evangelist, striving to improve lives through improved home environments. The rocker—like the embroidered pillows and curtains, the table scarves, rugs and pottery—was, ultimately, merely a means to a higher good: namely, comfort and respite from a troubled world.

This is one of the things that makes Arts and Crafts so inviting to antiques collectors: it was, from its very inception, a call to completeness. Catalogs of the period sell everything from linen curtains to rugs to lamps to bookends, as well as furniture for every room of the house. Gustav Stickley himself was adamant in his call for the 'whole' Arts and Crafts home, whose harmony of wood, wall colors and accessories would, he said, improve the quality of our lives with "a genuine, homelike charm."

What was true nearly a hundred years ago is still true today—and collectors who have caught the Arts and Crafts bug find that its call for harmony and completeness is best pursued with what we would, in our best clinical manner, deem obsessive.


Many of the people who approach Hunt's booth are regulars. For them, the rocker's secrets are an open book. Some engage Hunt in extended discussions about the movement. One man lingers for five minutes to discuss the glazing methods used on Arts and Crafts pottery. Others muse over the jewelry—they're the sort who buy jewelry, so a case of it to them is like a pot of honey to bees: it attracts terrifically.

At one point, a couple—well-dressed, both in their early forties—strolls up and begins chatting with Hunt casually. Then they turn their attention to the pottery. The man's eye is caught by a small vase. After a moment, he picks the piece up and balances it delicately in his palm, as if it were a butterfly or a tea cup in a Japanese tea ceremony. He shows the piece to his wife, who seems decidedly less enthusiastic but nonetheless willing. Moments later, a check is written, the vase is wrapped, and the couple walk away, happy.

The level of contentment shown in the exchange—by the husband, particularly—is rarely seen outside of antique shows, I think. Henry James referred to it as "the amusement in seeking," but the attraction is stronger than this. Or rather, if there is amusement in seeking, there is also an intense thrill in acquiring something new for the collection.


Hunt herself acknowledges that collecting can have an addictive quality, but she shys away from a word like "obsessive." "Once you get hooked," she admits, "you just can't..." She lets her voice trail off for a moment. "And a lot of times, when your house is full, you'll trade up."

But that word "obsessive" doesn't sit right with her. She prefers to call it "a fun diversion." When asked if she would stop collecting if it were the only way to cure her of a mysterious cancer, she's quick to answer.

"Of course I could stop," she says, laughing. "But I wouldn't want to. It's too much fun. I mean, it isn't a sickness or something. It's a little bit of a bug, is what it is. It's not terminal.

"You have to realize," she continues, more seriously, "that you're talking to a dealer. This is my livelihood. So a lot of the people I know want to talk about Arts and Crafts. I've got other interests as well. But being a dealer tends to be more of a primary focus. In all honesty, my clients have got a lot going on in their lives. Now there are some people known in the industry for whom collecting is their life. But it's just furniture, after all," she says, laughing. "Ultimately, that's what it is."

Watching the faces of buyers circulating around the Showplace, one has to wonder.


Frontispiece to the Come-Packt Furniture Company Catalogue 1912-1913

For a better understanding of how this highly coveted interior was presented to perspective turn-of-the-century buyers, let's look for a moment at a catalog illustration of the time. It appeared in a Come-Pakt catalog advertising inexpensive Arts and Crafts furniture that could be ordered partly-assembled (at the time, shipping rates were based on the space a parcel occupied rather than its weight).

The illustration shows us a typical if rather rich Arts and Crafts interior: a large room with a high ceiling, richly patterned rugs and elaborate woodwork, it attracts us largely because of its warm ambiance. Now look at the family using the room: the husband sits on the far side of the library table with his back turned so that the lamp casts light on his newspaper. The chair he sits in is a large, heavy, comfortable Morris chair—just the sort of thing a man who's worked a long day would like to come home to (according to a Gustav ad). Notice also that the library table divides him from the two children who play, presumably quietly, behind him. The man, it seems, is in a miniature study of his own—a quiet retreat offering salvation from the long work day.

The wife, in the meantime, has taken an intermediary post at the table's end, between her husband and her children. She is sitting in a rocker which, one immediately notices, is slightly smaller and less comfortable than her husband's Morris chair. The back is unpadded and its seat is presumably harder than the Morris chair's. Still, the couple and their children seem happily settled into a quiet night together. And this is perhaps the illustration's most affecting quality: its sense of harmony.

Here, it exclaims, is a home where the interior not merely fits the family's needs but makes them cohere in a harmonious, warm sense of togetherness.

If, in today's world of the single-parent family, such offerings seduce us, we shouldn't be surprised.


But let's look again at the illustration. Consider its lighting: only a single table lamp casts light for the family's work area. Though it was typical for its time, such an underlit environment might strike us today, from within our well-lit, light-colored interiors as rather severe and stark.

As the illustration suggests, Arts and Crafts interiors favor dark-wood wainscoting, dark wallpaper and dark paints, dark-wood built-in bookcases and drawers (reducing the need to move heavy furniture when cleaning) as well as low-level lighting. (Edmund Wilson dubbed the years between the Civil War and the 1920s 'the brown decades' for good reason.) But consider how appealing the illustration is. This setting—dark colors with low lighting—is well-suited for a warm, homey style of living. In fact, lighting was a critical issue at the turn of the century, when electrical lighting began replacing gaslights and candles, and Arts and Crafts lamps produce a beautiful, golden ambiance that must have made the transition to electricity more palatable for eyes accustomed to low lighting.

Indeed, far from being the white-walled minimalism of Le Corbusier and the modernists, Arts and Crafts homes are today readily familiar and comfortable. Of course, there is an undeniably inviting quality to the properly furnished home, and if comfort is a universal principle (and it may not be), individuals from any era would appreciate it. But for us today, in the middle of an Arts and Crafts renaissance, its popularity has been brought about first by a series of significant museum shows and then an increasingly prominent role in Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

Indeed, Arts and Crafts environments have become iconic in some areas, particularly as warm, feel-good settings for commercials. Among Hollywood's more prominent collectors are Bruce Willis, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Streisand and Richard Gere. (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle remains the most thoroughly Arts-and-Crafts-dominated movie, and NBC's "Mad About You" gets the nod for largest collection of Arts and Crafts furniture, though much of it is reproduction.)

Prices, correspondingly, have gone up. And up. And up. Where, twenty years ago, Arts and Crafts furniture could be bought at yard sales for next to nothing, even common pieces have begun to set auction records. Indeed, many of the hautier antiques shows have lifted their ban on pieces less than a hundred years old to accommodate Arts and Crafts furniture.


By the end of the show, though, Hunt has not sold the Stickley rocker or table. She's sold a lot of jewelry and pottery, but, uncharacteristically, the furniture hasn't moved well. As she points out, though, the country's biggest annual Arts and Crafts event—the Grove Park Inn's Arts and Crafts Conference, held in Ashville, North Carolina—is just a few weeks away, and people are probably saving their money for the trip south.

And there, she knows, the crowds will gather, prices will be negotiated, and the pursuit of a lost (or imagined) past will continue. And when the perfect piece is found, the amusement in seeking will again transform itself into something greater.

—Article by Doug Childers

Posted April 1, 1999



Roycroft poster, 1895

Nancy Hunt's booth at The Showplace





Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
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