Arts and Crafts Movement

Early 1900s oak chair by Charles Rohlfs, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Image by Wmpearl

As our society embraces more advanced technological breakthroughs, it’s nice to take a moment and reflect upon the simple joys in life. Perhaps this is what vintage means to us – a breath of fresh air; a return to what is good and pure. It’s only natural to seek out balance and we are no different from our turn of the 20th century counterparts. The giant bulldozing industrial revolution made many people question the validity of mechanizing every aspect of human life. This spirit, this aching toward human craftsmanship ushered in the Arts and Crafts Movement (or Mission Style as it’s also known in the States). Join us as we learn more about the guiding principles behind the movement as well as some key artists. While Arts and Crafts touched almost all aspects of the domestic environment: lighting, tapestry, accessories, pottery (such as Grueby) – we will single out furniture designers in this article.

What influenced the arts and crafts movement?

Arts and Crafts originated in England during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It reigned supreme from the late 1800s to early 1900s, with its peak from 1910-1916. As we said in the introduction, artisans were fearful of an increased dependence on technology and how that translated to product construction and enjoyment. Proponents of the movement sought to elevate the designer to a craftsman status and critics such as John Ruskin correlated honest craftsmanship with an honest society. Critics and designers looked back in time to medieval techniques – when a crafts person worked diligently to express materiality in design.

Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1903

Image by Prof. Dr. R. G. WInkler, Bad Godesberg

Ruskin, in particular, had a very heavy-handed approach, believing that good design could only come from honest work in a healthy environment. Pugin furthered his thoughts by citing that the Gothic period could help guide the Victorian era, freeing it from clutter and fanciful design. William Morris is perhaps the most well-known early proponent of the movement. An anti-industrialist, he was characterized for the belief that art could be the way to achieve a more harmonious world. He fervently believed in equality. This rhetoric (especially with overtones of democracy) gained strength and soon American designers and clients were founding schools and training programs. The Arts and Crafts Movement took hold across the country, with prominent centers being Chicago, Minneapolis, and New York City. In the States it also took on a new name: Mission Style and incorporated Native American influences.

Frank Lloyd Wright fused the Arts and Crafts emphasis on nature with Asian influences, creating the Prairie School movement. Several architects and designers followed suit, conceiving of design organically and striving to create complete, harmonious environments (architecture, furniture, and accessories). You will see this in his work as well as in the efforts of Greene and Greene in California. The 1920s ushered in the slick machine age and the allure of modernity reigned supreme, killing the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Arts and Crafts Movement Artists

Gustav Stickley

His work perhaps most concisely captures the Arts and Crafts Movement. The firm’s slogan is “Als Ik Kan,” which translates to “to the best of my ability.” And this phrase perfectly embodies that Arts and Crafts focus – to stay true to the material you are working with, keep the lines simple, and let the material guide the final result. He designed for middle class clientele in the hopes of bringing great design to the masses. While his work was known for its simplicity, the hiring on of designer Harvey Ellis brought an elegant touch to pieces. Ellis, while his influence was short-lived, crafted beautiful inlays that lightened the heavier work. See an example here.

How to identify Gustav Stickley furniture

Pieces from the Stickley firm will be constructed solidly, allowing the materials to speak for themselves. The composition will be simple and heavy: you’ll see exposed pegs, tenons, dowels, a missing bottom dovetail, and hand-hammered copper hardware. In the vein of other Arts and Crafts Movement pieces, you will not see extensive carving or curvilinear shapes. Thicker wooden components and the use of quarter-sawn oak represent his earlier work.

Gustav Stickley, adjustable back chair number 2342, 1900-1904

Image by Daderot

In terms of finish, clear dyes took this a step further, allowing the natural grain to be showcased in the design. Lighter finishes were used later on in his career.

Gustav’s brothers, John George and Leopold, also designed and crafted furniture. Their work differentiates itself in a couple key ways: the front board will be beveled on the top and corbels will be longer and leaner than the stout profile that Gustav used. Learn more about their work here.

Gustav Stickley utilized a variety of labels over the course of his prolific career, yet most display the firm slogan in a red decal. Additionally, some pieces may include the catalog number. If you see a box around the mark it represents an earlier piece. You will find these markings under the arms of chairs or on the bottom drawer of cabinetry.

George Grant Elmslie

Born in 1871 in Scotland on a small farm, his family moved to Chicago in the 1880s. Elmslie entered the world of architecture at the encouragement of his family. He found his way to Louis Sullivan’s firm where he worked with and befriended Frank Lloyd Wright. However the two pals could not have been more opposite in their personality: Elmslie was quiet and reflective. Upon Wright’s dismissal in 1894 he found himself taking on a more profound role within the firm. In Arts and Crafts style, he created complete environments, detailing furnishings for his residences. He is known for playing with light and heavy form. He left the Sullivan in 1909 and started a firm with William Gray Purcell.

Purcell Cutts House

Image from Charles Walbridge

How to identify George Grant Elmslie furniture

Elmslie focused on issues of form, rather than functionality. He strove for simplicity and contrast between rectilinear lines and curvilinear patterns. Elmslie’s early work includes the Box Chair that he created for the Babson House. The B designed into the sides’ upper corners typifies an Elmslie piece.

Chairs will have high backs and may include a flower-like motif. Sides of chairs were seen as planes that extend from the arms all the way to the ground, backs were triangular and included cut-outs. The legs were straight and vertical, but may include a slight kick back.

Charles Rohlfs

Unlike his peers, Rohlfs individually crafted each piece. By not utilizing a factory, his imagination was unbounded – exploring radical shapes and techniques. He saw furniture as sculpture and his playful take on proportions have earned him a large following. His pieces will be marked with an “R” and are mostly found in oak. Rohlfs rarely strayed from this material, but he is known for the occasional mahogany piece. See an appraisal of it here.

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: The Met Museum site, Arts-Crafts site, San Diego History, Antiques Roadshow, Stickley, Architecture: From Prehistory to Postmodernity 2nd edition, and the wonderful people who post their images to wikipedia without restriction.

For our readers: what do you love about Arts and Crafts?

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