Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
You go to a local auction and hear it whispered all around the room. "That's a Stickley piece. I hope no one else notices!" It comes up, a scrungy old thing, straight out of the basement with splotches of green and black and red paint dribbled all over it. The bidding starts at $5.00 and shoots straight up to $1,200. "Damn. I guess someone else noticed!"
So what's the big deal? Why do people say "Stickley" with near reverence in their voices? And was that battered old table really worth $1,200? Well, maybe it was and maybe it wasn't.
At the turn of the century, there was a strong reaction against the mass produced "industrial" furniture being sold by most companies. The Arts and Crafts movement advocated a return to simple designs, hand craftsmanship, and small workers' guilds or collectives. From this movement emerged the Mission Oak style of furniture. Some say the name derives from the ideological "mission" of returning style and craftsmanship to the American home. Others say the word derives from the California Missions, where similar simple designs had been used for hundreds of years. Either way, this was an ideological crusade and the Stickleys were in the vanguard.
There were five Stickley brothers - Gustav, Leopold, Albert, John George, and Charles. They all made furniture and they all congregated together and then separated again in all kinds of permutations.
Gustav made furniture in Syracuse, NY. He called his products Craftsman Furniture. He was the first of the Stickley's to produce what he called mission furniture. Gustav was the theorist and purist. He was most reluctant to compromise on hand production and craftsmanship. He held true to his mission, even when the economics made it impossible to continue. His furniture was simply too expensive. Even the wealthy were buying cheaper furniture from competitors. By about 1915 his company had failed; but his work is still, today, the most valuable and prized of the Stickley pieces.
Three other brothers, Albert, John George, and Charles, operated the Stickley Brothers Furniture company in Binghamton. After a few years Albert and John George decided to move the company to Grand Rapids, the furniture capital of America.
Charles stayed in Binghamton and formed Stickley and Brandt Furniture Company with an uncle. They specialized in chairs, including some mission designs.
After a few more years John George left Stickley Brothers and returned to Syracuse. That left Stickley Brothers under the control of only one brother, Albert. Albert brought the company fully into the mission oak business but with a much greater English Arts and Crafts emphasis than the other brothers. His work featured inlay, curves, and decorative cutouts. He called his products "Quaint" Furniture. His furniture isn't valued as highly as the pieces of some of the other brothers but, personally, we like some of it better than the more austere and stiff "pure" pieces. Some of it is even comfortable.
Meanwhile, John George had returned to Syracuse. There, he teamed up with the last brother, Leopold to form yet another company, the L..& J. G. Stickley furniture Company. Again, The company devoted itself to mission furniture. L & JG had a friendly relationship with Gustav, buying hardware from him, even constructing some of his designs for him. But they also had the business sense to compromise on Gustav's purist methods. If using machinery to make a part saved money and kept the business solvent, then that's what they had to do. As a result, the company survived, moving on when the mission style faded, to colonial revival furniture, then to hard rock maple, and finally to today's current reincarnation as a producer of the finest quality (and incredibly expensive) mission furniture.
There were other important mission producers. Foremost was the Roycroft furniture of Elbert Hubbard. Other important mission producers were Lifetime, Hardin, and The McHugh Company of Utica, NY.
There are several factors that account for the current appeal of mission furniture. The simple functional design has an appeal to modern sensibilities. Further, Gustav Stickley's "mission" of restoring quality and craftsmanship, or reviving the artisan tradition, has a strong appeal in today's world of plastic and particle board.
Now, back to the $1,200 table. First, who made it? In hierarchy of value, it is Gustav, then L & JG, then Stickley Brothers, and finally Stickley and Brandt. If it's Gustav, it's probably worth the price. If it's L& JG, it might be. If it's Stickley Brothers or Stickley and Brandt, it's probably not. But it's not that simple. If it's L & JG, when was it made? Several times, we've seen 1930s or 1950s pieces being priced as if they were 1910 mission pieces. Auctioneers are especially prone to call a piece L & JG without bothering to mention the date. The pieces produced during the interregnum between 1915 and the 1980s are worth only a little more than any other piece of quality used furniture.
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