The Noble Craftsmen We Promote:

The Arts and Crafts Movement in the American Midwest


Arts and Crafts in Furniture Design

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Arts and Crafts Furniture

The Arts and Crafts Movement in America is probably best known for the furniture it produced. Indeed, many claim that the furniture of the period was the one truly American product of the movement. Most of the furniture was built in the Midwest, particularly in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The golden years of Grand Rapids' reign as "Furniture City" corresponded with the height of the Arts and Crafts influence on furniture design. Roycroft and Stickley may have conceived of the artistic elements of Arts and Crafts furniture, but it was the large manufacturers in Grand Rapids who translated their artistic designs into affordable items and successfully marketed them to the masses.

Arts and Crafts furniture was often called "mission-style" furniture. No one is certain how it got that name. Some believe it is related to the philosophy of the movement, that is the furniture was functional and had a "mission" to be used. Other believe it was because the furniture was derivative of furniture designs found in Franciscan missions in California. Gustav Stickley called it "Craftsman furniture." Other manufacturers referred to it by the name of their particular furniture lines-"Quaint," or "LifeTime." Whatever it might be called, Arts and Crafts furniture was the most enduring manifestation of the movement in America.

Gustav Stickley claims to have "invented" Arts and Crafts furniture. The furniture is distinctive in its design elements, and is not easily confused with other furniture styles. It was plain and simple, with no decoration except an occasional corbel that provided support to heavy chair arms or overhanging table tops. It was built using mortise and tenon joinery techniques, which made it durable. Often the tenons extended through the mortise to make a particularly strong joint. It was always made with American hardwoods, usually white or red oak that was both plentiful and solid. While it was plain, it was nonetheless beautiful in the techniques used to finish it. The oak was often quarter-sawed, which highlighted the wood grain in a unique way, and it was thoroughly treated with concentrated ammonia fumes to bring out the grain and create a long-lasting finish. Chairs and tables were made with wood slats, and the legs were usually straight and held together with stretchers. If upholstered, it was covered in dark leather often held in place with hand-hammered nail heads. Pulls, latches, and hinges also appeared to be hand made in copper or pewter.

Stickley's early designs were influenced by medieval furniture, Shaker furniture, and Japanese designs. He emphasized the need for quality craftsmanship, good proportions, rich colors, and enhanced wood grains to achieve a decorative effect. He produced his first Arts and Crafts line in 1900, and displayed it at the Grand Rapids Furniture Exposition that year. He also advertised it that year in Chicago newspapers. It soon became a popular style that others sought to copy, especially since Stickley's line was prohibitively expensive for most working-class consumers.

Grand Rapids manufacturers seized upon the design elements and began to produce the style cheaply. Stickley had to mark his furniture to differentiate it from what he thought were inferior products. He was particularly angered when his brothers Albert and J. George Stickley began producing their own lines of "Stickley" mission furniture in 1902. The Stickley Brothers were best known for their bookcases and bedroom furniture, and also for their metalwork latches and hinges that had a hand-hammered look. The Stickley Brothers eventually bought out their brother Gustav's company after he went bankrupt in 1917.

Other important companies producing mission furniture in Grand Rapids included the Charles P. Limbert Co. Limbert began as a salesman for the Old Hickory Furniture Co. in Martinsville, Indiana, a company that produced popular Arts and Crafts-era rustic furniture. Limbert learned furniture design while living in Chicago, and moved to Grand Rapids to open his own company. The Limbert Co. was at its peak from 1904 to 1906. In addition to the traditional Arts and Crafts influences, Limbert was also influenced by traditional Dutch designs, and often promoted the connection between his company and the Dutch settlers of Western Michigan, many of who worked for his company. Other major Michigan manufacturers included the Grand Rapids Chair Company, which produced the "LifeTime" line, and the Michigan Chair Company.

Grand Rapids furniture manufacturers produced both high-minded and aesthetically pleasing mission furniture, and cheap, crass commercial knock-offs. Even though most of this furniture was built by machine, consumers felt they were buying quality, handcrafted products largely because of the sturdy joinery techniques and hard oak wood. Much of the furniture, even the cheaper-quality items, lasted for years. But the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts Movement of hand-made products of integrity, utility, and simple style was never a part of why most people bought mission-style furniture.

Atits height, the Grand Rapids furniture business was as huge success, largely due to Arts and Crafts designs. "Furniture City" boasted the largest furniture showroom in the world. To protect their interests, the major producers joined together in 1911 to create the Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers Association, and published the Furniture Record, a trade publication. Its decline as a leader in furniture production corresponded with the decline of Arts and Crafts furniture. After the major forests around the city were depleted of resources, the industry moved to cheaper labor markets in the South. During World War I, fifteen of the Michigan manufacturers joined together to build airplanes, a venture that was far from successful. After the war, neither Arts and Crafts furniture nor its Grand Rapids producers recovered.

Selected Item Descriptions

Facsimile reproduction, Craftsman Furniture 1909 Catalog. Philmont, NY: Turn of the Century Editions, 1995.

Stickley introduced his 1909 furniture catalog with an essay on the Craftsman idea. "Anybody who knows Craftsman furniture has no difficulty in realizing that the principles upon which it is based are honesty and simplicity." Stickley furniture represented the best of the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was also the most expensive. Stickley's furniture was well proportioned and exceptionally finished.

Facsimile reproduction, Arts and Crafts Furniture: Shop of The Crafters at Cincinnati Catalog, 1906. Philmont, NY: Turn of the Century Editions, 1983.

Cincinnati was a center of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the Midwest. It is primarily known for the art pottery produced by Rookwood. But it also was the home for other Arts and Crafts manufacturers, including the Shop of the Crafters furniture company. The company was owned by Oscar Onken, and specialized in unique mission furniture. Crafters furniture tended to be more massive and heavy than the other mission producers, and it displayed a distinctively European, masculine look.

Mission Furniture and How to Make It, Part I: Popular Mechanics Twenty-Five Cent Handbook Series Number One. Chicago, IL: Popular Mechanics Co., 1909.

Popular Mechanics produced many guides to help amateurs create for themselves. This volume gave detailed plans for creating a dining room chair, a library table, and even a simplified Morris chair in the mission style. (On loan from the collection of Peggy Zdila).

The Kitchen Plan Book, published by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, Newcastle, Indiana, ca. 1918. Reprint by American Bungalow Magazine, 1997.

While less identified with Arts and Crafts than the furnishings of other rooms, the kitchen was also revolutionized at the turn of the century. Housewives became the sole cooks in the house, unlike Victorian days when households could afford servants. Therefore, kitchens had to be simplified. The Hoosier Manufacturing Company, the company that had developed the one-piece Hoosier Cabinet, held a contest among leading architects to design the "Small-Family Kitchen." The top 50 designs were published by the company so home designers could take advantage of the best aspects of kitchen design. Of course each design had to incorporate a Hoosier cabinet. One of the kitchen designs displayed a plaque that could be the motto of Arts and Crafts kitchen design: "A Place for Everything, and Everything in Its Place."

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An Exhibit at the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, Carlson Library, The University of Toledo.

March 26th-June 30th, 1999.

Last Updated: 7/1/19