Playing Furniture Detective
One lesson learned by every writer – whether it be of a book, article, or late-night email dashed off after one too many glasses of wine – is that you can never be sure where your words may next be quoted.
Last week I received an email from a reader who had attached to it a 1987 article I had written when I was a columnist for Country Living magazine. Entitled “Arts & Crafts: A Beginner’s Guide To Collecting Furniture,” it was your basic historic background, design style, and shopmark identification article. Along with the article I included a photograph of a five-legged dining room table and a Gustav Stickley spindle rocking chair.
In this instance it was the photograph, not my text, which caught the reader’s attention, for he has a spindle rocker which looks very similar. As he stated, “it looks like a spindle rocker featured in a 1987 article featured in the July Country Living magazine. I would very much appreciate you taking a look and seeing if this might indeed be a Stickley piece or just a copy based on the mission style. I have found other similar chairs on the web advertised as a #375 Stickley with nuanced differences to mine. I would very much appreciate a second opinion!”
In his 1905 catalog, Gustav Stickley pictured an armed spindle rocker, model #375, available in either oak ($17.50) or mahogany ($21.75). The first thing I did was to count spindles and compare the number between the 1905 catalog picture and the photographs our reader had provided: each had the same. I also compared design elements, i.e. the shape of the corbels, the size of the pegs, and the method of attaching the arms and the spindles, and also found them to be the same.
Naturally, Stickley’s design elements could have been precisely duplicated by someone else, either a century ago or more recently, so that comparison alone would not suffice. I was hindered by not seeing the spindle rocker in person, but my sense is that it is not of recent manufacture. What also seemed to indicate it is a Gustav Stickley rocker is the fact that it was made of mahogany. I am not aware of any of Stickley’s competitors who went to the trouble of precisely duplicating his spindle rocking chair – and did so from mahogany rather than the more popular quartersawn oak.
But playing furniture detective always seems to present an unexplained clue. In this case it is what appears to be a large, vintage, circular sticker beneath one of the arms. Any printing once on the sticker had disappeared, but it did not look like any decal or label ever associated with the Craftsman Workshops of Gustav Stickley. As furniture historians have pointed out, however, some retail stores placed their own sticker on furniture they purchased to sell in their showroom. The sticker could also have been added later as an inventory record, perhaps by a home owner, a business, an institution, a gallery, or an auction house.
Thus, the question remains: assuming this spindle rocking chair left the factory without any original shopmark, is there enough evidence to state beyond a reasonable doubt that it came from the Craftsman Workshops of Gustav Stickley?
Until next week,
“Get to know the furniture first by examining it carefully – then look for marks as confirmation.” – David Cathers, “Furniture of the American Arts and Crafts Movement”