Despite recent tremors in the stock market and the credit crunch, the interest of the antique trade in the Arts & Crafts movement remains relatively steady. Collectors who bought the best examples can always expect to show a profit.
The movement began in England with William Morris (1834-1896). He was a gifted designer but felt an inherent contradiction within himself to the design of the times. Born when Gothic Revival was at its height, Morris rejected the architectural excesses of all that he saw around him. He claimed to have been made physically ill at the sight of the objects displayed at the 1851 exhibition of Victorian achievement held at Hyde Park, London.
Together with like minds, including the author and art critic John Ruskin, Morris believed that art should be “man’s expression of joy in his labour.” While Morris and Ruskin admired the simplicity of medieval life, they were in revolt against mass-produced objects being made by an exploitative social system. They believed in a return to a world in which physically useful objects were made in a loving environment, and which would make everyone happy.
Later, in the 1880s, the movement came under the influence of Japanese and ancient Egyptian art, as wealthy travellers ventured further afield. One member of the movement who went on to help spread the Arts & Crafts message in America was Archibald Knox. He had trained with designers Christopher Dress and M.H. Baillie Scott. Knox drew on his Celtic heritage to design metal ware and jewellery that was both original and modern for its time.
Knox supplied one of London’s most prestigious department stores, Liberty & Co., until 1912, when he went to America, where he designed carpets for Bromley & Co of Philadelphia. Liberty continued to run a separate Arts & Crafts department, featuring examples of 20th century objects until last year.
In furniture, the leading exponents of the movement in the United States included Gustav Stickley, who began his career working alongside his father, a Wisconsin stonemason, but soon turned to chair making under the tutelage of an uncle in Pennsylvania. As the founder of the Gustav Stickley Co. in Eastwood (a suburb of Syracuse), N.Y., in 1898, Stickley began to make handsome and solid, but plain, furniture. To distinguish his products from those made by his two brothers, Leopold and John George Stickley in Fayetteville, N.Y., he adopted the trade name “Craftsman.”
The term “Mission Style” soon became applied to this type of furniture, reflecting the Southwest Hispanic influence. In truth, Stickley’s inspiration was drawn from a number of sources, including Scandinavia, Japan, medieval Europe and Shaker traditions. Today, Stickley furniture continues to be made at the company’s factory in Manlius, N.Y.
“Original pieces carry the best chance of showing a profit,” said Pete Maloney, owner of the specialist Arts & Crafts Internet retail outlet, www.gustavstickley.com. “Contemporary Stickley is also selling well, but buyers will have to wait a while to make a profit. Greene & Greene has been proving popular with collectors too, because it has a lighter look.”
Furniture produced by the Grand Rapids Chair Co., which made the “Lifetime” line of furniture, has also sold well. As the classic pieces of furniture became too expensive, collectors with modest means turned their attention to items made by individual craftsmen who copied the popular styles from catalogs and plans. Some of these pieces can fetch high prices, despite not having a famous label attached to them.
Public taste for Arts & Crafts was in decline by 1920, but a revival began in the early 1970s, spurred on by an exhibition of furniture and pottery held at Princeton University. In fact, the catalog for the exhibition became a bestseller and is still in print today from the Princeton Press.
Renewed interest in Stickley furniture meant that the company could reinvest under new ownership. and traditional Stickley Craftsman furniture was reintroduced. Collectors have also been turning their attention to other early 20th century manufacturers, such as the aforementioned Lifetime, along with Roycroft and Limbert.
Over the past 30 years, artistic pottery of the early 1900s has also seen a huge boost in its profile. Specimens of Newcomb College, Weller, Rookwood and Roseville have been collected with renewed vigor. In England, Moorcroft underwent a revival in its fortunes also. The factory began a rebirth as collectors reappraised the work of a new generation of decorators.
With the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000, many collectors turned their treasured possessions into cash, but prices for mid-range furniture and pottery fell the most dramatically. As a result, collectors have become more discerning. While demand for Arts & Crafts furniture comes and goes depending on the season, interest in art pottery of the period shows no signs of flagging.
“Collectors should buy what they like aesthetically,” said Arnie Small, president of the American Art Pottery Association. “Buy the best example of the particular factory you are interest in.”
A record price of $516,000 was paid for a rare vase by Frederick Rhead in March. Rhead was born in Staffordshire, England, in 1880 and came to the United States in 1902. He went to work for the Vance Avon Faience Co. for a short period of time. He also worked for Weller and became art director at Roseville Pottery. In 1914, he established Rhead pottery in Santa Barbara. He also created the popular Fiesta line for the Homer Laughlin Co.
America’s home-grown Arts & Crafts community in East Aurora, N.Y., is undergoing a rebirth. It is part of a multi-million dollar project that began with the renovation of the Roycroft Blacksmith and Copper Shop on the Roycroft Campus. The intention is to bring back to life this once-thriving community of Roycrofter craftsmen and artists.
The original facilities were sold off in 1939, but the heart really went out of the community in 1915 when the community’s founder – the writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard – and his wife perished aboard the liner Lusitania. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
From 1894 to its demise in 1938, Roycroft produced some of the finest furniture, metalware, lamps and books. Craftsmen included Karl Kipp, metalworker; Dard Hunter, metal and leaded-glass items; Frederick Kranz, fine leather goods; and artists Will Denslow and Samuel Warner.
In 2005, a rare table lamp designed and made by Dard Hunter was sold at auction. It had a leaded-glass shade with fruit and foliage in yellow and green slag glass, over a glazed ceramic base decorated with salamanders. It went for $65,000 at Rago Arts and Auction Center, Lambertville, N.J.
Recent sales of Arts & Crafts revival pieces have shown that individual quality items can fetch really good prices. The golden rule remains: Buy what pleases you, and what represents the best example of a particular studio or workshop.