Great Design Transcends Time
Those of you who were reading this column last summer may recall my discovery of Gustav Stickley’s former furniture store and headquarters on 38th Street in Manhattan, now the site of Butterfield 8, a popular watering hole and restaurant.
I only had time for a quick, cold beer that warm July afternoon as I sat at the end of the bar, visualizing what the main showroom in the Craftsman Building must have looked like in 1912 when it was packed with new Morris chairs, bookcases, desks and china cabinets.
While there is nothing in Butterfield 8 that provides any clue to everything that took place in that room nearly a hundred years earlier – from the excitement of the grand opening to the heartbreak when the doors were closed a mere four years later – just knowing that the building still stood, that the showroom still existed, that you could go in and sit down and, for a few minutes, roll back Arts & Crafts history was more than enough to draw me back a few weeks ago.
Again I sat at the bar where I could view the entire room, but this time I lingered over dinner and a few glasses of wine as I drank it all in. I shared with a 54-year-old Gus my own memories of once having bought a commercial building I could not afford, of countless nights and weekends wrestling with sheetrock and wearing out paint brushes, of filling the showroom with antiques and the backroom and basement with woodworking machinery, of agonizing over how people would perceive it, of how it would do financially, of how I would be able to repay a nervous loan officer at the bank.
I followed him out the door as he headed up toward Penn Station to catch the train across the Hudson River over to his home and farm in Morris Plains. Broad-shouldered, head held erect, this son of German immigrants who fought and drank and struggled to feed eight children on a worn-out patch of rocky ground in desolate Wisconsin had never finished high school, yet had risen to become a prominent businessman and magazine publisher with a twelve-story headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Alas, if only his business had been as well built as his Morris chairs….
The next morning I nursed a steaming cup of black coffee as I walked up 7th Avenue to the ‘new’ Stickley Store on 25th Street. The late Alfred Audi had, as a young man, worked with Gustav’s brother Leopold Stickley, before eventually buying what little remained of the Stickley furniture company and, in 1988, introducing an extensive line of new Arts & Crafts furniture based on the designs of both Gustav and Leopold Stickley’s companies.
The initial resistance on the part of antiques dealers and collectors to this new line of Stickley reproductions gradually melted as the Audi family launched an extensive advertising and public relations campaign that over the course of nearly 25 years has introduced more new people to the Arts & Crafts movement than anyone else.
I thought I knew what to expect as I entered their spacious, two-story showroom that morning: room after room after room of perfect Arts & Crafts settings – dining rooms, living rooms, offices, bedrooms, dens, family rooms, each meticulously outfitted with flawless new Stickley furniture and carefully-selected Arts & Crafts accessories.
But – I was in for a surprise.
What you have to realize is that the Audi family has been very loyal to the designs of Gustav Stickley. While they have employed innovative technology to make the construction process more precise and cost effective, they have seldom veered from the original designs approved by Gustav Stickley.
Twenty minutes into my wandering through the store it hit me: I could stand in one spot and look to my right and see a 1901 Gustav Stickley bookcase, turn to my left and see a set of spindle furniture from his 1907 catalog, turn around and spot an experimental Harvey Ellis-designed music cabinet from 1903, look a little further and see exactly how Gustav’s sideboards had evolved from the 8-legged massive version in 1901 to the scaled-down model of 1915 with no strap hinges, a thinner top and no thru-tenons.
The furniture was all new, but the designs were original.
And unlike in any museum, I could open the doors, I could pull out the drawers, I could run my fingers over the corbels, I could put my elbows on the table and my feet on the footstool in front of the Eastwood chair I would never have imagined myself sitting in at any museum exhibition.
It was a study in design, a complete collection of Gustav Stickley’s furniture designs, an evolution of Arts & Crafts history, from the dark, massive early years to the more refined middle period to the scaled-back later years.
And it is all under one roof, it is open nearly every day, and it is showing in more than one city.
While I am sure Gustav Stickley would be honored by the homage being paid to him by the traveling exhibit currently on display at the Dallas Museum of Art and soon to be moving to San Diego, I cannot help but think that, as a manufacturer and designer of new Arts & Crafts furniture, he would be equally as proud of his designs being preserved, studied and appreciated each day in the Stickley furniture stores across the country.
And I’ll drink a toast to that… over at Butterfield 8.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!
My original column on Gustav Stickley’s furniture showroom appeared on July 5, 2010. You can read it by first clicking on Archives below.
For information on the Stickley-Audi showrooms, please go to: http://www.Stickley.com.
For information on the traveling Gustav Stickley exhibit, please go to: http://www.dallasmuseumofart.org.
It closes in Dallas May 8th – not May 20th as previously announced.