Furniture Detective: Stickley Bros. may be behind ‘Quaint’ furniture

Have you ever seen a quaint piece of furniture? One that could be defined as charmingly odd in an old-fashioned sort of way, unfamiliar and unusual but not completely foreign? That could probably describe a number of pieces you have seen, but the word “quaint” never exactly occurred to you to use in describing it.

But it did occur to members of one of America’s greatest furniture-making families, the Stickley family.

The first Stickley endeavor was a company called Stickley Brothers Furniture Company in upstate New York, formed in 1884 under the leadership of Gustav, Albert and Charles. But like many family arrangements, that began to come apart quickly. Charles left first, joining his in-laws to form Stickley-Brandt. Then Albert left to join his brother, John George, in a new venture. Gustav, meanwhile, changed the name of the original company to Gustav Stickley Co. That left Albert and J.G. free to use the name Stickley Brothers for their new company in Grand Rapids, Mich., formed in 1891. Of course, J.G. soon left to open L. & J.G. Stickley in New York in 1902 with another brother, Leopold, but the seed was sown in Grand Rapids.

The Michigan company at first made Colonial Revival occasional chairs and fancy tables, until the popularity of the Mission style, promoted by oldest brother Gustav under the Craftsman label, became impossible to ignore. So Stickley Brothers jumped into the already-crowded field of Arts & Crafts period manufacturers turning out factory-produced, Mission-style furniture. They produced their first line of Mission-style in 1900, but they needed a name. The name “Stickley” was already overshadowed by Gustav, so they had to come up with a new hook. That hook was the term “Quaint.”

Their first line of Mission-style was blocky, with little decoration except for hand-wrought copper hardware and Spanish-leather upholstery. By 1903 the “Quaint Mission” line was in full production and was well-received in the market. But the primary Mission market was thin and short-lived, and the company began to move away from it as soon as 1909, even though mailorder houses like Larkin continued to carry it into the 1920s.

At first, the designs just became a softer version of straight Mission, with turned legs and curves. But that soon grew well beyond the original look of pure Mission and in 1904 was renamed “Quaint Arts & Crafts,” which lasted another decade. But by then it was time to move on. But to what? And what to call it?

The “what” turned out to be European revival styles advertised as “modernized period styles” in the 1910s. And the name? What else but reliable old “Quaint.” This time, though, the new line was the “Quaint Tudor” line of heavy, English bulb-turned furniture that seemed not too far away from the heavier Mission styles.

That was followed in 1914 by “Quaint Manor,” featuring slenderized Austrian designs with cane panels and cut-out decorations. At the same time, Stickley Brothers engaged several Japanese artisans to bring a fresh look to their designs, and that resulted in other period revivals with painted finishes and Oriental decorations, quite a departure from Mission.

But the American Colonial Revival movement was too strong and too important to be ignored much longer.

By the early 1920s, the company came out with its “Quaint American” line of styles that featured natural-finish American style Windsor chairs and ladder-back chairs, along with brightly painted versions. These were accompanied by reproductions of Colonial-period gateleg tables and a wide variety of case goods that loosely reproduced most of the important styles of Colonial America. This was followed by complete matching bedroom sets and dining sets, all under the cover name of Quaint American.

One deviation was an offshoot called “Adam Colonial” in 1925, but that was just a more informal rendering of the Revival style.

The same year, a line called “Peasant” was introduced that imitated the country look of central Europe. By the mid-1920s, the company quit referring to its style lines with specific identities attached to the Quaint label and just called them “Quaint American Furniture.”

The company label reflected this shift, and by 1926 the label was changed to simply read, “Quaint Furniture of Character, Stickley Bros. Co.” By 1928 it was further simplified to just “Quaint Furniture.” By the mid-1930s, the only reference to Quaint in the company label was found in the Art Nouveau-style logo that had been employed since 1902. From the 1930s to the 1950s when the company closed, Stickley Brothers produced “country” informal versions of American Colonial styles that eventually fit in nicely with the “early American” look of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Isn’t that quaint?

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Fred Taylor writes a syndicated series of monthly articles under the bylines “Common Sense Antiques” and “Questions and Common Sense Answers” for antiques and collectibles publications in the U.S. and Canada. He covers major antiques auctions all over the country and is a contributor to the semi-annual publication Antiques and Art Around Florida.