Pickin’ through Chester County, by Tara Dugan
MOST look forward to spending time with friends and family at Thanksgiving, but there are plenty of people who would rather have a root canal than sit at the same table with relatives. Books, movies and reality television are full of feuding families, and the world of craftsmen is no exception. Think The Real Housewives of New Jersey are disloyal? Meet the Stickley Brothers.
Born in Wisconsin in 1858, Gustav Stickley was the eldest of five brothers. Gus, as he was called, learned to make chairs in his uncle’s workshop. According to author and expert Larry Koon, Stickley was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the time, and by visits to missions in the American Southwest. He began producing mission furniture and published a catalog with do-it-yourself instructions for home woodworkers. His work evolved over the years and iconic details emerged, including the use of quartersawn, white American oak and “through tenons” (where the joint protrudes though the surface to lovely and solid effect). Gustav’s settles, bookcases and rockers remain popular today, and are sought after. A true prize might be marked with his motto “Als Ik Kan” – meaning “as good as I can.” Gustav Stickley made furniture from 1898 until 1915, which seems a suspiciously short period of time for a man regarded as the master of American furniture from that period. So what happened?
Gustav’s four brothers, Charles, Albert, John and Leopold, were also talented craftsmen, and guess what? They made mission furniture, too. Charles and Albert founded the Stickley Brothers Furniture Company in New York and Michigan, while Leopold and John George called themselves L. & J.G. Stickley. The brothers spent years venturing out on their own, creating numerous Stickley-sounding furniture companies, and generally leaving everyone confused about what the name “Stickley” meant.
So what ever happened to Gustav, the most famous Stickley? He was forced out of business and declared bankruptcy in 1915. A large group of competitors, chiefly his brothers, copied his work and made it for less. Gus went to work for Leopold and John, which was convenient as they took over his factory. Naturally, it didn’t last long.
On the bright side, all of the work produced by any of the Stickley brothers is beautiful, strong and highly collectible. At a Chester County auction, I recently purchased a Stickley Brothers chair with its original label, dating it to about 1910. This label (the “Quaint” line from Stickley Brothers Furniture) made the chair easily identifiable to anyone who bothered to turn it over, but the well-known Stickley details revealed its identity at first sight. The beautiful tiger striping of the oak is still luminous after 100 years, and the reupholstered leather seat makes it as good as the day it left Leopold’s shop. Or was it Gustav’s?