A Message of Honesty and Joy: a Q&A with David Cathers
by Kate Nixon
(Since Bruce is hard at work on Conference matters, we’ve giving the spotlight to David Cathers, guest curator of the upcoming exhibition “The American Arts and Crafts Chair: A Message of Honesty and Joy” to talk about the message of the show.)
When we interviewed guest curator David Cathers about the upcoming exhibit “The American Arts & Crafts Chair: A Message of Honesty and Joy”, he was quick to point out how the exhibit he had helped to create showed both the legacy of Gustav Stickley’s work, but that of his modern peers as well. “…it’s not just to show Gustav Stickley’s work but to also exhibit work by a number of his Arts and Crafts peers, and so along with the three Gustav Stickley chairs in the exhibition there are also fine chairs, for instance, by Rose Valley, Stickley Brothers, Byrdcliffe, McHugh, L. & J. G. Stickley, Roycroft, Limbert, Charles Rohlfs, and J. M. Young. I believe this is the first time that furniture by all these makers has ever been gathered together, all in one place, at one time.”
Guest curated by Cathers, the exhibition will examine the American Arts and Crafts chair through thirteen featured side chairs, from early-20th-century handicraft-oriented manufacturers, among them Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Workshops, the L. & J.G. Stickley Company and the Charles P. Limbert Company, and small craft-oriented workshops, including Charles Rohlfs, the Roycroft Shops, Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and Rose Valley Association. Ahead of the upcoming exhibition, we asked Cathers a few questions about chairs as a representation of honest and joy — and he generously gave us well thought out answers. Here are his answers to the questions we asked.
Arts and Crafts Collector: What criteria did you use in the selection of the chairs?
David Cathers: The exhibition’s title is The American Arts and Crafts Chair:”A Message of Honesty and Joy.” This quote is from an article written by the Arts and Crafts architect Will Price in 1903, and we wanted to select chairs that embodied those values. Gustav Stickley said that an “honest” chair is “Comfortable, durable, well-proportioned, and as soundly put together as the best workmanship, tools, and materials make possible.” Its joinery is strong, straightforward, and not concealed by layers or ornamentation, and its beauty is subtle and refined. Will Price wrote that possessing a beautiful, useful, honestly crafted object — for instance, an Arts and Crafts chair — brought joy to its owner. But Price’s focus was also on the maker’s joy: there’s pleasure in mastering craft skills and in using those skills to create worthwhile work.
The skilled artisans who made Arts and Crafts chairs — working by hand and with various machines — created chairs that were comfortable and functional, but more than that they drew on a delightful vocabulary of ornament to make their chairs beautiful. This means not only the good proportions, general rectilinearity, and revealed joints that we associate with Arts and Crafts furniture, but also such decorative techniques as inlay, relief-carving, sawing-out, carving and molding, vividly expressive structure, the colors and textures of wood and textiles, and even, in rare instances, paint.
Arts and Crafts Collector: Why were chairs selected as the focus of the exhibition?
David Cathers: We chose chairs as the focus of the exhibition because they so effectively express the themes of “honesty” and “joy” that are the focus of the show. Probably we could have expressed the same themes by exhibiting sideboards or bookcases, but I think chairs are easier to relate to, more “human” somehow, and of course they’re more manageable than case pieces. The idea for this exhibition came out of the Farms’s Curatorial Committee, and I’m not exactly sure how the idea for specifically a “chair” exhibition arose, but whatever the background I wrote the proposal for the exhibition, and in my proposal I said that first and foremost I want the exhibition to be “a visual delight.” That has been one of the most important aims all along, and I think we’ve achieved it. So far I’ve only seen a preview of the show, but the day I was there, the chairs arrayed in the Farms’ dining room looked beautiful.
Arts and Crafts Collector: Which one is your favorite?
David Cathers: I don’t have a favorite — that’s an honest answer.
David Cathers can be seen guest curating the upcoming exhibition “The American Arts and Crafts Chair: A Message of Honesty and Joy”at The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, opening on Saturday, June 1, 2019, running through Sunday, January 5, 2020. For more information, please visit the exhibit information page on the Stickley Museum’s website at the following link: