Professedly functional but sometimes fanciful, American Arts & Crafts objects still lend themselves to harmonious living.
Can you improve your life, and maybe even the world at large, by filling your home with thoughtfully made things? The notion might seem naïve and maybe even comical today, but it inspired many American Arts & Crafts designers to sit at their drawing boards and conceive a masterpiece. The American Arts & Crafts movement sprang from ideas first put forward in England by William Morris, John Ruskin, and other 19th-century creatives, and its expression reflected the individuals who embraced them as well as the regions that those people called home.
“One of the things that’s most important to realize about Arts & Crafts is that it really was a philosophy about a way of life, in which art played an integral role. It was not a style of art. It was interpreted in different ways around the world,” says Nonie Gadsden, the Katharine Lane Weems Senior Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “The difference between the United States and the British is the U.S.’s ability to democratize these ideas and get them to a larger segment of society.”
The Arts & Crafts movement arose in reaction to the poor quality of mass-produced goods of the time and the decorative excesses of the Victorian era. Its furnishings looked simple and honest, even if they were far from simple to make. Curves gave way to straight lines. Clutter was banished. Fussy flourishes were shunned in favor of techniques that let the grain of the wood serve as ornamentation and elevated the bones of the furniture to art. Gustav Stickley, the legendary New York state designer, might be most famous for his Arts & Crafts take on revealing what cabinetmakers once labored to conceal, allowing the tenons—structural components that held a chair or table or other piece together—to peek through surfaces and become decorative elements in their own right.
“I love that it [the Arts & Crafts movement] was meant to encourage a way of living that was radical, transformative, salubrious, and modern,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions in Lambertville, N.J. “Stickley, for one, was clear about the positive effects of living in a healthy environment fitted with objects and furniture that were made in the right spirit, by the hand of the craftsman, with natural materials, a minimum of ornament, working together for a unified whole. There was both a revolutionary and spiritual backbone to the material, which attracted both high beings and those bereft of soul, as seems so often the case—the former because they had something to give back, and the latter because they looked externally to fill their inner void.”
While British Arts & Crafts proponents romanticized the idea of making things by hand, as the guilds of old did, Americans were more open to relying on machines. They believed that surrounding yourself with thoughtfully designed and well-made objects had the power to make your life better, and they believed that the ability to do so should not be a luxury restricted to the wealthiest. But these beliefs ran smack into a dispiriting reality: it was virtually impossible to produce and price these objects for a middle-class American budget without at least some assistance from machines. Gustav Stickley, again, innovated his way past this uncomfortable fact by printing catalogues and magazines that showcased his wares and the ethos behind them. In showing his customers how they could assemble complete homes full of pieces all offered by his company (and, if the customers wished, a home for it all to go in), Stickley was among the first, and possibly the first, in America to market what we’d now call a “lifestyle.”
In devoting themselves to simple, honest-looking, lightly adorned designs, Arts & Crafts proponents birthed a style that Rago dubs “the team player of decorative arts.” Produced between the late 19th century and the early 20th, American Arts & Crafts items suit a surprisingly wide range of settings, from folksy to ultramodern, and complement a wide range of objects, from Native American pottery to Oriental rugs. Moreover, American Arts & Crafts furnishings were never intended to languish behind velvet ropes in a museum. “It’s a very functional sort of design,” says Jill West of Circa 1910 Antiques, a gallery in Laguna Niguel, Calif., that specializes in Arts & Crafts. “Even with children in the house, collectors feel comfortable paying a lot of money for them because they are sturdy. They are made to be used and to be functional. It’s not like a delicate piece of furniture that makes you say to your kid, ‘Don’t touch that.’”
Mixing different varieties of American Arts & Crafts furniture is a trickier proposition, and not one for interior-decorator amateurs. “The movement didn’t promote a particular style,” West says. “Everybody worked in their own way.” When asked if pieces by California-based Greene & Greene, Midwestern architect Frank Lloyd Wright, New York state entrepreneur Gustav Stickley, and Buffalo, N.Y.-based proto-studio furniture maker Charles Rohlfs could be placed in the same room and expected to play nicely together, Gadsden chuckled. “Arts & Crafts is about harmony, but the style can range drastically depending on where in the country it is,” she says. David Rudd, founder of Dalton’s American Decorative Arts in Syracuse, N.Y., was cautiously optimistic, saying, “You could have pieces by all four and have a room that’s comfortable, aesthetically, if you’re careful with the forms and with what you’re doing.”
Rohlfs is the oddest man out of those four American Arts & Crafts luminaries. He evidently didn’t get the memo about how the style demands restraint with ornamental details. Rudd recently sold an early revolving desk by Rohlfs that had elaborate piercework on its front and swirling, flamelike finials sticking up from either side. “This happens to be very simple,” he says of the not-at-all-simple-looking desk. “I have a second with much more carving.” The MFA Boston has an early Rohlfs hall bench on view in its Americas collection that is sedate by comparison to Rudd’s desk but is festooned with Rohlfs’ own exquisite hardware, which is flanked in turn by sumptuous carvings that resemble wafts of smoke. The longer you look, the more different styles you might see—Gothic, Art Nouveau, even Moorish. “There’s a little bit of everything in there,” says Gadsden. “It’s truly individualistic. He’s interpreting Arts & Crafts for his own needs, in his own ways.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s angular, proto-modern designs are almost the antithesis of Rohlfs. On view in the same Boston MFA gallery as the Rohlfs bench is a chair Wright designed for the Warren Hickox House in Kankakee, Ill. Its unusually tall back was not merely aesthetic. “It created a room within a room, without walls, when you sat in these chairs around the dining room table. It created an enclosed space around you,” says Gadsden.
Pieces by Gustav Stickley might be somewhat easier to come by than pieces by Wright, Rohlfs, and the Greenes, but his finest material is no less pricey. Furnishings made by Gustav Stickley between 1901 and 1904 are especially prized. Rudd recently sold a 1902–03 dining table with a rare square top. “I think Gustav Stickley produced some of his better designs [then],” says Rudd. “They just seem to be purer forms. They’re almost bench-made.”
Greene & Greene material is rare for the same reason that Frank Lloyd Wright material is rare—it was designed by architects for a specific home and it only reaches the market if the home is emptied. Rago Auctions’ house record for a Greene & Greene piece belongs to a unique mahogany table lamp that sold in October 2015. Henry and Charles Greene created it around 1912 for the Blacker House, a Pasadena, Calif., home of their design that was dispersed against its late owner’s wishes after she died in 1946. The lamp was nearly dismembered in turn; its consigner spotted its shade at a yard sale and asked where its base was, only to be told that it had sold earlier that day. Once base and shade were reunited, the lamp sold for $502,000—well above its $40,000–60,000 estimate. The Modernism Museum of Mount Dora in Mount Dora, Fla., defeated another museum and the owner of the Blacker House to win it.
Of all the homes the Greene brothers designed and completed, only one survives in its original, unaltered form inside and out. The Gamble House, an 8,200-square-foot winter residence finished in 1908 in Pasadena is just as it was when the last Gamble family members moved out in 1966. Fully composed environments of the sort that the Greenes championed were strictly the province of the wealthy. We know precisely how much the Gamble house, lot, and assorted surroundings cost, down to the penny: $106,284.10, which translates to more than $2.6 million in modern dollars—not cheap, then or now. Visiting the Gamble House reveals what was lost when other Greene & Greene homes were altered, refinished, refurnished, and otherwise scattered to the winds; it’s not far from scissoring a poem into individual letters.
The dining room shows how deeply the brothers thought about how to craft spaces that would best please their owners. The art glass above the built-in mahogany sideboard in the dining room is enlivened with a rose pattern that alludes to the rosebush planted outdoors below it. The brothers built the Gambles a custom bracket to display an ancient Chinese bell on the mantel, and they shaped the dining room table top like a tsuba, or Japanese sword guard, to underline the Gambles’ love of Asian art. And the mosaic glass inlaid in the tiles on the fireplace harmonizes with the copper and glass Tiffany Studio mosaic bowl on the dining room table. “Greene and Greene were aware of what was in the Gambles’ collection, and they designed for it,” says Angela George, curator of the Gamble House.
Interestingly, there’s no proof that the Gambles preserved the house after learning about what happened to the Blacker house. Apparently, overhearing a would-be buyer declare that he would paint the interior white convinced the Gambles that it would be better to keep it intact. The Gamble House celebrated its 50th anniversary as a museum last September with the unveiling of a garden on the grounds. It was restored by Isabelle Greene, granddaughter of Henry Greene.
American Arts & Crafts pieces have since become antique, but the ideas that inspired Stickley, Wright, Rohlfs, and the Greenes keep their furnishings and fittings vital today. “They have strength, they have personality, and they have interesting forms that are pleasing to look at,” says West. “The details are subtle, but handsome. It’s great to live with, wonderful to look at, and we never grow tired of it.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley