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Arts and Craft Movement - Its Influence on American Woodworking


									Arts and Craft Movement - It's Influence on American Woodworking
Woodworkers as a lot are very opinionated people; just ask us. We all
know which tools, types of wood and finishing techniques work the best.
Ours, of course, and to tell the truth that's my opinion too. I. I have
tools that I love, and those that I don't, techniques that really work
great for me and those that don't, as well as those I really dislike. But
one thing I think all woodworkers can agree on is the look and feel of a
finely crafted piece of work. If you ever have the opportunity to visit a
real woodworking shop or store, not those mass produced Mega stores, but
a real store or shop with saw dust on the floor, I will bet you will not
be able to resist running your hands along the tops, admiring the fine
joinery and the quality finish even if it isn't your style of furniture.
Now there are many different styles of work, from the plain and simple
lines of the Quakers, to the highly decorated Queen Anne pieces with
turned legs and curved fronts, to the ultra modern pieces that infuse
wood and other materials. In my mind the best style is Arts and Craft. I
think there is a lot of agreement with that choice. One of the things I
have learned since I began to research the Arts and Craft movement is
that the style is not limited to just the furniture. It's a whole package
which can encompass your entire house. If you doubt this, go to your
local DIY store, where you will find an ever increasing supply of
Hardwood Oak moldings and trim. Or go to any of the thousands of
furniture stores, and even though a lot of the stuff is particle board
and laminate, a lot of the designs have very strong Arts and Craft
influences. When we moved into our current home, we had the standard
builder's grade painted 1 3/8" molding on every door and window. As time
and budget has allowed, we have replaced every single piece of it with
wide, stained oak molding. We recently replaced the stair risers and
treads with oak, and most of the carpet has found its way to the junk
yard. Why, because we love the look and feel of real wood. Most of the
furniture I make is either a reproduction of an Arts and Craft piece, or
a variant of it. The furniture that we have purchased is either Leather
or Danish Modern.
Both the Leather and Danish Modern blend well with the Arts and Craft
design, Most of the early work done by Gustav Stickley, the father of the
Arts and Craft movement in America, was done using the natural beauty of
the Wood and Leather. The only difference I can see between the Arts and
Craft and the Danish Modern, is the choice of finish. The original Arts
and Craft pieces tended to be rather dark, while the Danish Modern is a
light, oil based finish. Both styles of furniture feature simple lines
and honest craftsmanship. Some of the Danish pieces are too eccentric for
my personal taste, but I have to admire the craftsmanship.
The Arts and Craft Movement in America can trace its humble beginning
back to late 1800's to the early 1900's. Most of the furniture of the era
was being mass produced, highly decorative, and to some, shabby in
appearance and workmanship. While at the same time, Europe was under
going a cultural revolution, lead chiefly by William Morris, who later
became infamous for his "Morris Chair", and fellow Britisher John Ruskin,
against this mass produced, and highly decorated style of furniture.
These followers of the Arts and Craft Movement preached a return to
handcrafted styles and a philosophy of a simpler life. The young
American, Gustav Stickley, during a trip to Europe, became a disciple of
the movement and the world of woodworking and furniture in America was
forever changed.
Upon his return to America, Gustav opened his "Craftsman Store", in 1898,
where he perfected his unique design. His work was based on rectilinear
designs, featuring mortise and tenon joinery, or dovetails. These joints
were celebrated, not hidden, as it was in the Victorian pieces. One of
the tenants that Gustav believed in was hand craftsman. This ultimately
led to his company's demise. In 1916, a short 18 years after it
inception, Gustav Stickley filed for Bankruptcy.
While his stay in business was short, Gustav's legacy lives on today.
Many of his designs are still copied and his original pieces now are in
museums or private collections. Their monetary value is unreachable for
Gustav had two younger brothers, Leopold and John George, who were also
very accomplished craftsman. Together they opened their own company, "L &
JG Stickley, Inc" in 1904. The L & JG Stickley Company is still in
business today. Although it is no longer held by the Stickley Family,
they still produce high quality furniture of the Arts and Craft era.
Leopold and John George also believed in hand crafting the furniture, but
understood that machines could be used to get the piece to the point that
hand workmanship could complete the piece.
The Stickley's were not opposed to machinery, they just the rejected the
sloppy workmanship that mass production and machines brought to the work
place. A concept that still plagues some work places over 100 years
later, perhaps it's not too late to learn from Leopold and John George.
Today we would call this a "strong work ethic", but what ever you call
it, it worked, because in 1918, Leopold and John George purchased the
bankrupt "Craftsman Store". Leopold and John George are also responsible
for the 1905 introduction of the Mission Oak design that is still very
much in vogue today. And in 1922, they introduced their "Cherry Valley
A lot of other names have been associated with the Arts and Craft
Movement, too many to name. However, in my mind, no discussion would be
complete without adding the names, "Greene & Greene". Charles and Henry
Greene were not actually furniture builders, but rather Architects, along
the line of Frank Lloyd Wright. When commissioned to design a home, they
also designed the furniture to go in the home, this was a strict
requirement. If the client could not afford their furniture, Greene and
Greene would require that they purchase furniture from Gustav Stickley.
The Greene and Greene designs varied from the traditional Arts and Craft,
their choice of wood was Mahogany, instead of Oak, and instead of
straight stretchers, their Asian influenced designs have a "Cloud Lift ".
Often the Cloud Lift was repeated in the bottom of the apron. Today's
woodworkers can replicate the Cloud Lift detail with a template and a
router. I marvel at the skill it took the original craftsman to do this.
Another design element that identifies the Greene and Greene style is the
use of inlaid ebony pegs into major joints. These pegs were either
decorative, when used to cover a screw, or structural. After a mortise
and tenon were fitted and glued in place, a hole was made in the side of
the leg into the tenon. A corresponding ebony peg was inserted into the
hole, creating incredible strength. The ends of the pegs were shaped to
add visual interest.
Greene and Greene home and furniture designs were published in a
magazine, created by Gustav Stickley, fittingly enough named "The
Craftsman". The magazine was also an avenue for Gustav to spread his
gospel regarding all manners of life. If you were to compare the writing
in "the Craftsman" to those of today's DIY magazines, you would truly
note that the authors of the Arts and Craft movement were more
renaissance men than strictly woodworkers. They shared their beliefs on
all matters of life.
There has been some confusion about the name, Craftsman home. Some feel
that the name represents the design concepts of the Arts and Craft
Movement, while other think of the "Craftsman Home" sold by Sears. From
about 1908 to 1940, Sears manufactured a line of stick built homes that
were sold from a catalog and delivered to the job site with all of the
pieces cut and labeled. Sears had over 400 stock designs, but allowed
individual customers to modify any of the Plans. Sears reportedly sold
some where between 70 and 75 thousand of these homes. Out of the Arts and
Craft movement, also came some interesting, and some what dangerous,
methods of finishing. Gustav Stickley and his followers advocated
"Fuming" as the finish of choice. Now remember, this was long before,
OSHA, and the workers rights movements. The completed pieces were placed
in an "airtight" room, and exposed to high strength ammonia. The tannins
in Oak, will react to the ammonia, and color the wood. This is a practice
not in use anymore in industry, as working with the high strength ammonia
is a health risk. Just like I marvel at the craftsmanship, I often think
about the workers who day after day carried the wood into the fuming
rooms, having little or no breathing protection.
What actually killed the original Arts and Craft Movement? Historians
tell us that World War One was the Death knell to the movement. With the
country at War, most of the able bodied men left the factories and shops
in support the war effort, including the craftsmen and artisans of the
day. Factory productions were switched to supporting this effort, leaving
few resources for furniture manufacturing that wasn't strictly
functional. Returning GI's, brought back with them a new love for the Art
Deco look which was very popular in Europe.
I think that there are probably two other factors that created the end of
the movement, the 1930's brought about the great depression, where people
were much more concerned about actual survival, then obtaining quality
furniture. The second thing is a problem that still haunts us today, a
knowledge drain.
With the skilled craftsman leaving to go to the Europe and the Asian
theaters of War, their knowledge left with them. The woodworking guilds
closed down as the craftsmen left and those who took their places in the
workplace were unskilled laborers. As woodworkers, I think we can all
agree that the difference between an average woodworker and a
craftsperson, is often training under a skilled master woodworker.
So there you have it, if you are like me, I look for every book or
article I can find about the Arts and Craft movement. Not because I want
to build everything in the book, I don't have the room, time or budget
for that, but because I love the style. If you're new to the Arts and
Craft style, you came at a good time, recently there has been a renewed
interest, and with that brings more information, books, and CD's. Go find
a project you like, and work at it, but be careful, you might get hooked
on the style.
The Jersey Woodworker has been a successful woodworker for over 30 years.
To see more of his tips and projects please visit Sawdust on the Floor

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