Craftsman Furniture: History vs. Marketing

Harvey Ellis Chair from the Craftsman Magazine

This chair appeared in the January 1904 issue of “The Craftsman” magazine

My cynical side believes that there isn’t much difference between history and marketing, and my rational side has to admit that a lot of recorded history exists to sell something. Maybe not a specific product but a set of ideas or a justification of events. A lot of it aims for an emotional target rather than an explanation of what happened and why it happened. Before I started writing about history I thought it was pretty easy; you check out the facts and report what happened.

You don’t have to go back in time very far to find the water muddied, and you can’t accurately or honestly state much in definitive terms. The chair pictured at right presents several cans of worms. A reader innocently asked if I had plans for it, or knew where he could find plans. How he referred to the chair is what inspired this post, and I receive questions like this all the time. He used the term “Harvey Ellis side chair”, which is the catalog description used by the current Stickley company for their version of this chair. (I had to check the current Stickley catalog to see what chair he was referring to.)

This chair (and a matching arm chair) appeared in an article in the January 1904 issue of Gustav Stickley’s “The Craftsman” magazine titled “Stucture and Ornament in the Craftsman Workshops”. The story of these pieces is pretty interesting, and I go into that history in pretty good detail in my book “Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture”. The short version is that most of these pieces never went beyond the prototype/samples for retailers stage back in the early 1900s. A few were catalogued without the inlay. As a result of this, the few original examples of inlaid Craftsman furniture that exist are worth a lot of money.

Likely the main reason that these never went into production was the cost of adding the inlay. In 1903 they were cut by hand and assembled individually. Today we can spank out the inlays with a CNC machine or a laser and slap them on almost anything without doubling or tripling the cost of the furniture. The ROI isn’t what it was way back when and the inlays add a lot to the appearance.

There is also some controversy about who created these designs. They look like the work of Harvey Ellis, but there is no documentation from the period to prove that. Some historians take that as proof that the inlays and the furniture were not the work of Ellis. Others like to proclaim these as the work of Harvey Ellis, because there is a cachet currently attached to the name. For what it’s worth I see the work of Ellis, but don’t think he directly designed furniture; again there are several pages in my book devoted to this discussion. You can find an excerpt at this link.

If you don’t care about the actual history, you can find nicely made furniture with nice inlay that looks similar to the real thing. If you do care about the history, get your hands on one of the reprints of an original Stickley catalog and compare what was made then to what is made and marketed today. If you’re looking to reproduce an original piece, I can help because I have done the research and made drawings of many original pieces. If you’re looking to knock off any contemporary furniture maker’s work, I’m not your guy.

chair from original Gus Stickley production

This chair was cataloged by Gustav Stickley in the early 1900s

I mentioned earlier that the inlaid chair was never put into factory production. The chair at left however, was. Like many pieces of factory produced furniture there are variations on themes. If the back posts of this chair were a few inches taller, and an additional top rail added, I think it would look like the chair from “The Craftsman” article. Drawings for this chair are in the book and also available here.

The current work of Stickley is second to none in quality. The furniture itself is probably the best factory produced furniture you can find. Some of their current production is reproductions of period pieces, and some of it is interpretations or new designs “in the style”. There is nothing wrong with doing that. But bear in mind that they are in the business of selling furniture, not reporting on history.

— Bob Lang


Comments

Craftsman Furniture: History vs. Marketing — 2 Comments

  1. OK, so, bottom line, I could get your plans for the standard side chair and modify it a bit to look like the current “HE” chair from stickley? I want to try my own inlays. Don

  2. Fascinating. I think I am that reader that asked about the Harvey Ellis Chairs (and I wondered why I never heard back from you). Thanks for the info. I have ALL of your books including the newest one. The inlay wasn’t of that much interest to me. I liked the higher back and double rails. I’d be making these for my 1911 Arts and Crafts Bungalow in LA. So I was thinking something perhaps more “substantial” would fit better.

    Here are pics of our dinging room from This Old House Magazine where the chairs would go.
    http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,1576623_1278097,00.html
    http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/photos/0,,1576623,00.html

    LOVE YOUR PLANS AND BOOKS. My dream is to make everything in all of your books before I leave the planet.

What do you think?