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Furniture Designs for Gustav Stickley?

The concept that Ellis functioned as a furniture designer for Stickley appeared about three decades ago. By now that belief has been widely accepted as fact even though no objective documentation of it has been found. Because it has such obvious significant curatorial and commercial ramifications, the concept merits a much longer post than the norm of this blog.
   In late March, 1903, Gustav Stickley opened a large Arts and Crafts exhibition in his Craftsman Building in Syracuse, New York. In addition to decorative arts in various materials, it included a large selection of European and American furniture. At that time Stickley was known as the manufacturer of the massive furniture that he had shown at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo two years earlier. He was also the publisher of The Craftsman, a monthly magazine he had started in 1901 with two ever-present goals in mind: first, to promote the Arts and Crafts doctrine as formulated by William Morris about four decades earlier; and, second, to use it as a marketing tool to promote sale of his merchandise. Well received by the  public, the Syracuse exhibition established Stickley as the de facto leader of the American Arts and Crafts movement. After the exhibition closed, it was shipped to Rochester, New York, for a showing at the Mechanics Institute, a vocational training school whose arts curriculum reflected Arts and Crafts principles. It was at this point that the lives of Stickley and Harvey Ellis intersected, for Ellis was in charge of installing the exhibition in its Rochester venue.
     Ellis, a native of Rochester, had been prominent there for many years as an artist and architect. By 1903 he had been back in Rochester for a decade after a seven-year sojourn in the Midwest. While working as an architect in Minnesota and Missouri he had designed important residential and civic structures that had brought professional notice to himself and his employers. During those years, because of his stunning pen-and-ink perspective renderings published in widely circulated architectural periodicals that inspired other designers and delineators throughout the country, Ellis became nationally prominent in the American architectural world. After his return to Rochester, painting and the Arts and Crafts movement became his main intellectual interests. He was a cofounder of the Rochester Arts and Crafts Society in mid-March, 1897. (For the record, the Rochester society was the first organization of its kind in the United states, preceding by a few months the Boston Arts and Crafts society, usually considered the earliest.)
     The exhibition as installed by Ellis, the president of the society from its inception and also an occasional teacher at the Mechanics Institute, was a resounding artistic and civic success. Shortly after it closed Ellis accepted a job in Syracuse in Stickley's architecture department. By then Stickley's United Crafts business had grown large enough to be divided into separate architecture, furniture, metalwork, and textile departments. In May, just before Ellis's arrival, Stickley had expanded the reach of the architectural component of his business by offering to assist any Craftsman subscriber with personal advice about designing, decorating or furnishing an Arts and Crafts house--no doubt his products would be recommended. Perhaps Ellis became one of the employees dispensing advice.  In November, four months after Ellis's work began to appear in the magazine, Stickley announced to his readers that because personal responses to the many requests for architectural advice were no longer feasible, he was establishing a Homebuilders' Club. Magazine subscribers would become club members, and if they supplied enough specific information, the architecture department would prepare free customized house designs for them. Even though there seemingly was no provision for the usual give-and-take consultation between architect and client as a design was being developed, demand was great, and dozens of designs were soon created. While producing architectural designs for publication, Ellis also was likely involved in the Homebuilders' Club in some way as either a designer and/or perhaps, given his prior experience as an architect, as the supervisor of  the department's other employees.
     Compared to the architectural designs previously seen in the magazine, Ellis's published work was notably more attractive, sophisticated and up-to-date, and conceivably it had spiked requests for the customized house plans. In only one of his residential projects, the first one, did Ellis draw rooms with prominently positioned furniture and decorative items, such as wall hangings and table runners, that were formally consistent from item to item and with the architecture. The furniture was not the lightly scaled type associated years later with Ellis; rather, it  resembled the massive items that Stickley had been making for several years, but no single item exactly corresponded to his merchandise. It has never been suggested, then or now, that Ellis designed this furniture. Clearly he was exercising artistic license in envisioning ideal Arts and Crafts interiors whose architecture and furnishings were totally integrated. In Ellis's subsequent Craftsman residential projects there were assortments of furniture, some of which varied stylistically from item to item in the same room. Much of it resembled Stickley's various newer production lines that began to appear in 1903 just two months after his exhibition had closed, but again none of it exactly depicted any actual item for sale. Some of it also clashed noticeably with Ellis's architecture, and on several levels such dissonances became a sore point for him. In his final project, a bungalow design whose rooms were mostly empty spaces devoid of movable furniture, he wrote:
          If, after having been built with great respect for harmony and appropriateness, the bungalow should be filled with the usual collection of badly designed and inadequate furniture, the ensemble would be distressing, and the thought involved in the structure of the building thrown away. The term furniture implies, per se, movable portions of a building, and as such should be conceived by the designer. Otherwise, nine times out of ten, an unpleasant sense of incongruity prevails. The importance of unity between the furniture and the structure, in spite of the fact that every writer on the topic has insisted upon it, in the majority of circumstances is further from realization than it was in the Stone Age, when by force of circumstances, harmony of manners, methods and materials it was a necessity.
     Although Ellis's texts that accompanied his illustrated residential projects described architectural features in detail, except for the above tirade they said either nothing or very little about the furniture he depicted. In his designs of  the 1880s and 1890s Ellis, like countless other architects before and since, had drawn imagined furnished interiors in order to demonstrate to clients the visual harmony that could accrue when a house and its furnishings were artistically compatible. There never has been an implication, then or now, that he had designed any of those ornate Richardsonian or Beaux-Arts furnishings. Similarly, at the time his Craftsman articles were published, there was no suggestion that Ellis had designed any of the Arts and Crafts furniture he depicted in its pages. Nevertheless, many decades later, and with disregard for historical context, those same illustrations were interpreted to mean that Ellis designed the furniture as well as its architectural setting. At the time this was a unique reading of the illustrations, and it has yet to be objectively documented or justified. This can be judged a misreading of consequential magnitude, for the idea that Ellis was the designer of certain prized pieces of Stickley's furniture has now become widespread in many collecting, curatorial and, especially, commercial circles.
     Good history mandates objective consideration of all known facts about a given subject at a given time even though that might ultimately lead to rejection of a scholarly hypothesis or a cherished idea. With that in mind it can be viewed as coincidence that the new more lightly scaled items began to dominate Stickley's merchandise and the pages of The Craftsman at about the same time that Ellis joined the architecture department. Often overlooked in certain commercial circles, but of greater significance to the historian than just Ellis's arrival, is the larger historical context. By including examples in his exhibition of more delicate furniture, even some with applied decoration, which he previously had deplored, Stickley had shown the public and his staff that he was open to different newer modes, ready to move on artistically. Employees in his furniture department, who no doubt would have scrutinized the items in the huge exhibition that had been displayed in the same building where they worked, likely then responded with a variety of newer designs that reflected in personalized ways what they had seen. Different ideas emanating from different employees would account for the obvious diversity in Stickley's new merchandise. Seasoned furniture designers, such as for example LaMont Warner, who had been with Stickley since 1900 and who was conversant with Arts and Crafts trends of the day, as revealed by his clippingfile, more likely devised the new production items, not Harvey Ellis, inexperienced as a furniture designer. He was busy during the seven months he worked for Stickley devising architectural products whose illustrations of interiors were used as a means of presenting, or in many cases just suggesting, often as inconspicuously as possible, the general characteristics of the newer concepts created in the furniture department.

....find details in Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis

....look for forthcoming posts

Reconfiguring Harvey Ellis
Beaver's Pond Press (Minneapolis, Minn.: 2004)
9x12 hard cover, 364 pages, 245 b&w and 45 color illustrations, $70
Find details of the contents at
Available at

© Eileen Manning Michels April, 2010