On a ‘Mission’ for well-made furniture

Like America itself, the impetus for one of the country’s most influential lifestyles came from England. The great American tradition of Arts and Crafts furniture, pottery, art, architecture and metal work began with the discontent of a young, independently wealthy Englishman named William Morris (1834 – 1896).

Morris was an educated man who worked as a poet, a writer, an artist and a social reformer. He strove to incorporate the concept of beauty in all he did and was greatly aggrieved that the early promise of the Industrial Revolution had not been realized as a way to improve the quality of life for the average working Englishman. He yearned for a return to Medieval times when simple craftsmanship alone was sufficient without the frivolity that seemed to pervade the Victorian century.

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In 1862 he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company for the practice of the decorative arts. In 1865 his firm produced the first copy of the piece of furniture that would secure his place in history, the Morris chair. The chair was based strictly on comfort and function with two simple pads for upholstery, a simple obvious frame structure and an adjustable reclining back for comfort. The direct appeal of his “concept” chair won him followers for his drive toward reversing the excesses of the machine age. Charles Eastlake was an early advocate and mentions him prominently in his 1868 book “Hints on Household Taste”.

Morris held out against the advances of technology in the late 19th century, eventually calling his “back to basics” ideology the “Arts & Crafts” movement. One of his most prominent adherents was Elbert Hubbard, brother in law of John Larkin. Hubbard, who devised the premium coupon system for Larkin’s soap business and made them both wealthy, visited Morris in England in 1893 and returned home a devoted disciple. He later founded the artistic colony at East Aurora, NY which he named Roycroft after two 17th century bookbinders. The Roycroft community embodied the simplicity, substance and directness envisioned by Morris.

But the movement that started out as a reform to return to the simple ways of life and to make quality manufactured goods available to the average working person had a real life flaw. The average worker, English or American, could not afford the sturdy, well built, individually handcrafted items turned out by the Morris firm, the Roycroft community and many other similar groups such as the Artworkers Guild of  Providence, RI.

It took the insight of another New York cabinetmaker, Gustav Stickely, to make the concept and the furniture affordable. He originally produced furniture for the Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago until he had fully formulated his concept of  the work. He then founded his own shop in Eastwood, NY  using the simple styles and sturdiness of the movement but beginning to incorporate the advantages of modern machinery and manufacturing processes. His “Craftsman” line of furniture was a large success and the general category of sturdy oak, straight-line furniture became generically called “Mission” furniture. Some authorities say this name came from the similarity to the simple furniture made for use in the Spanish missions of Southern California while others attribute the name to the functional design of the furniture, i.e. to fulfill a mission.

In any event the concept worked and soon Stickley had major competition from manufacturers who blatantly copied his style and even used trade names deceptively close to his. Some of his greatest competitors were his brothers. Albert and John George Stickley founded Stickley Brothers Furniture Company in Grand Rapids about the same time Gustav opened the Craftsman Workshops. Later John George left Stickley Brothers and teamed up with another brother, Leopold, to establish the L. and J.G. Stickley Furniture Company in New York. Charles Limbert had entered the fray early in the process in 1902 and produced a slightly different line of “Dutch” Arts and Crafts items in Grand Rapids and Holland , MI.

As competitive pressures developed in the marketplace, the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement fell further and further behind the factory production principles of  “mission’ style furniture. With its straight lines, simple joinery and limited wood and finish selection, the style was exactly suited to the American factory system.

But like happens to so many reform movements, enthusiasm for Arts and Crafts eventually began to wind down as reality moved away from the original 19th century concepts. By World War I Arts and Crafts was just about gone, having been overtaken by another movement of the late 19th century, the Colonial Revival, the look back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the founding of  America.

But Arts and Crafts left a lasting impression on the furniture industry and in the mind of the public. It set a new benchmark standard for quality and integrity which is still used today and in the long run it did accomplish its original objective. It provided a great middle class with well made, affordable furnishings. ?

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor, P.O. Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com. Visit Fred’s Web site: www.furnituredetective.com.

His book “How To Be a Furniture Detective” is available for $18.95 plus $3 S&H. Also available is Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques by Fred Taylor” ($25 + $3 S&H). For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916 or info@furnituredetective.com.

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