Gustav Stickley, while an innovator in design, did not work single-handedly, and his work does show influences from designs that were seen in England prior to the introduction of his Craftsman furniture. Although Stickley’s daughter Barbara, maintained that Harvey Ellis was the only person to ever collaborate with or design furniture for Stickley, a letter from the architect Claude Bragdon mentions another architect, Henry Wilkinson, working for Gustav designing furniture in 1900.
After Gustav Stickley, the most influential designer of the period was Harvey Ellis, who worked for Gustav for a brief period before his untimely death in 1904. Ellis is usually described as an itinerant architect, and his addiction to alcohol caused his early death. Ellis and Stickley met in 1903, with Ellis going to work for Stickley in May or June of that year. At the beginning of the next year, Ellis was already dead, but Stickley’s 1904 catalog featured many Ellis designs, notably inlaid chairs and cabinets that never went into full production. The addition of arched elements, subtle curves, and purely decorative elements added a touch of lightness and grace to Stickley’s previous work. These pieces are some of the best proportioned and most elegant furniture ever made.
In addition to furniture designs, Ellis also wrote articles, designed houses, and drew illustrations for The Craftsman magazine. It is generally reported that Ellis was hired for his skill and training as an architect. But Ellis’s talent for furniture design and the number of pieces that are attributed to him make it hard to believe that Stickley was interested in his furniture designs only as an afterthought. Furniture production was always the largest part of Stickley’s business, and faced with the ever increasing number of companies copying his work, Stickley needed new, fresh designs to stay ahead of the competition. Harvey Ellis strongly influenced Gustav Stickley’s furniture, and many of the pieces that are considered to be the “best” examples came from or were strongly influenced by Harvey Ellis.
The temptation to attribute designs for specific pieces to individuals is strong, and many writers have given in to that urge. But there simply isn’t enough evidence available to do that. Some of the design elements commonly attributed to Harvey Ellis appeared before he came on the scene, while others appear in pieces that didn’t come into production until well after his death. It is likely that Ellis, and others employed by Stickley, supplied the themes for these pieces, while Stickley’s draftsmen worked out the details and possibly applied the themes and design elements to other pieces.
Before settling in on his Craftsman designs, Stickley experimented with Art Nouveau designs, the best known of which are the tea tables based on stylized plant forms. There were also notable china cabinets that featured applied curves on the panels, a shape quite similar to the corbels that would appear on later pieces. The rarely seen early pieces indicate clearly that subtle curves and delicate pieces were a part of Stickley’s design vocabulary before Ellis arrived on the scene.
Stickley’s bungalow chair, produced in 1900, is remarkably similar to chairs shown in Ellis’ renderings and raises the question of who was influenced by whom. Stickley’s final designs, produced at the end of his career in 1915 and 1916, show a versatile and talented designer fully capable of producing work in a variety of styles.
Both Stickley’s and Ellis’ work showed influences from English Arts & Crafts designs, notably those of Voysey, Ashbee, and Mackintosh. The two men shared interests and leadership in the Arts & Crafts movement, had common interests and influences, and each recognized the importance of the philosophy behind their new designs. While Ellis was employed by Stickley he was also, like his employer, extremely independent and able to explain his designs as logical solutions to common problems. To my mind, their brief working relationship seems to be more the collaboration of equals rather than of a hired hand doing his employer’s bidding.
Mary Ann Smith’s Gustav Stickley: The Craftsman outlines Stickley’s design process, as described by his grandson Peter Wiles. Gustav would explain the design concept to his workman verbally, waving his hands to indicate the general shape and features of the piece. Then the workman would build the piece and show it to Stickley who would inspect it, again indicating changes by waving his hands. Another model would be built incorporating the changes. This process continued until Stickley approved of the design, which then went into production. Only at this point would measured drawings be made.
Although Wiles would have been too young to have witnessed this first-hand, I see no reason to doubt that it was Stickley’s method, at least in part. However, there is a contradiction between Wiles’ second-hand account, and Claude Bragdon’s description of Wilkinson’s work designing furniture. Wilkinson’s role as a designer is also unclear. Were the ideas that came from his pen his, or were they his interpretation of Stickley’s ideas? Quite likely, the designs were a collaborative effort.
Many of the pieces of furniture designed for Stickley by Harvey Ellis first appeared as renderings in The Craftsman, and there would be several stages of drawing and prototype-making between concept and final production. When and where someone else picked up the work of Ellis is unknown, as is the actual role of anyone involved.
Stickley’s ability to communicate his design ideas verbally could also be used by others in preparing drawings for the production of prototypes. In addition to the architects who worked on The Craftsman, Stickley also employed a number of designers and draftsmen, notably Peter Hansen, who later worked for L. & J.G. Stickley, and LaMont Warner. Some sources have attributed designs to Hansen and Warner, but these attributions seem mostly to be based on the fact that they were present, and “could” have produced the designs.
I believe that most of the design ideas came directly from Gustav Stickley, but that the process of taking any design from idea to production was a collaborative effort. Stickley was involved in all the details of all the work that bore his name, be it the furniture, the magazine or house designs. It is not likely that a significant manufacturer, with decades of experience in the industry, would develop prototypes without any drawings or sketches in the early stages of the process. It is also unlikely, given the number of different pieces manufactured by Stickley that each piece depended on building and rebuilding a complete prototype, without any drawings.
This is evident in both the editing and publication of The Craftsman and in the preparation of architectural drawings. Stickley’s name is credited, and in the case of the architectural drawings, many had his signature of approval, but there is no evidence of drawings prepared by Stickley himself. This does not mean that the designs are not his creations. It would not have been possible for one individual to do all of the detail work associated with conveying his ideas. I think it reasonable to assume that the development of the furniture and inlay designs involved a similar process. Stickley outlined his ideas, and his team carried out the process of refining the designs, and preparing them for production.
One of the main means of communication in furniture making is sketches, often hurriedly drawn and rarely saved, but nonetheless crucial to the process. There is always some degree of give-and-take in the process of bringing a design idea to finished form, and the scale of Stickley’s operation suggests that a team effort would have been necessary. Stickley would not have come close to achieving what he did, if he did not have the ability to listen to those he trusted to carry out his ideas. It is tempting to give credit to Stickley alone, but it must be remembered that he had highly skilled, talented help. It is also tempting to give credit to those who worked for Stickley, but this should only be done if there is strong evidence of significant influence.
This post is adapted from the introduction to “Great Book of Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture“.