Missionary Zeal Buyers Seek the Pared-Down Simplicity of Arts and Crafts Furniture

Article excerpt

Some call it Mission furniture. Others dub it Arts and Crafts. Or Craftsman. Or Stickley.

Whatever they call it, Americans have fallen head over heels in love with bold, angular furniture some historians characterize as having all the style (and strength) of a locomotive.

Because they are not bogged down by intricate decoration, the sturdy, rectilinear lines appear as contemporary as the front page of today's Daily Herald. Yet the style actually debuted a century ago when architect Gustav Stickley introduced a new look in interiors for the "modern lifestyle" of the 20th century.

Gustav Stickley was a major player in the Arts and Crafts intellectual movement in the United States. It began in Europe, where John Ruskin and William Morris in England, Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Scotland and Josef Hoffman in Austria were influential in creating a new aesthetic - one that stressed function and unadorned beauty over the ostentatious frou-frou of the Victorian era.

It was a bloodless counter revolution - a means of opposing the dehumanizing aspects of the machine age, which had begun producing grossly inferior products that were sold at high prices.

Through it, a call was sounded, reawakening appreciation for the pared-down simplicity of hand-made goods offered at prices affordable to ordinary folks.

"Because our lives seem so cluttered today, it's this 'craftsman' simplicity that seems to be drawing people to Stickley furniture," says Joan Franken, merchandise buyer for Toms-Price furniture stores in Lincolnshire and Wheaton.

Toms-Price is a major U.S. retail dealer for L. & J.G. Stickley, the company founded by two of Gustav Stickley's younger brothers in 1904.

American consumers sat up and took notice several years ago when the Stickley company (its ownership is no longer in the family) revived its historic Mission Oak collection, piquing the interest of a new generation of furniture collectors. Just as sophisticated and contemporary as they were considered in 1900, these pieces offer the same level of quality and construction that reflects the Craftsman philosophy with which they were designed.

Today the same furnishings - the sturdy settees (the Stickley word for sofa), the ample spindle chair, the revered Morris chair (named for the influential William Morris and the forerunner of today's recliner), the sideboards, the glass-doored bookcases and the tables, from tiny side models to hefty dining tables - can be ordered in lighter cherry finishes as well.

And, according to Amy Dvorak, a Stickley representative, the company is poised to introduce a 21st century Mission collection of solid cherry with black ebony inlays.

Regardless of wood finish, Stickley pieces are being purchased in record numbers for almost every room in the house.

"Their versatility enables the pieces to combine well with contemporary furnishings, traditional pieces, more eclectic settings or to stand alone in a room where no other style is used," Franken says.

Both Franken and Dvorak recommend using natural coverings - perhaps linen, tapestry or leather - for upholstered pieces.

While Stickley is the major player when it comes to these classic pieces, many other major manufacturers are cashing in on a popular trend.

Calling it a "niche look," Machiko Penny, merchandising manager at Walter E. Smithe Furniture, likes to see ethnic-inspired prints used as upholstery fabric on Arts and Crafts-inspired pieces. …