I’m All Confused; What’s up with this Mission vs. Craftsman vs. Arts & Crafts Stuff?
(M.D. DeCou copywrite 1-15-2007)
This morning (Jan 15, 2007) I read a lumberjocks Forum question from “Shawn” who is trying to line out the differences between the terms Mission, Craftsman, and Arts & Crafts. If that wasn’t his real question, it at least made me think to post these thoughts I’ve had bouncing around in my head for three or four years. The kind of malarkey a guy thinks about who has too much time alone working in his shop.
I don’t work for a museum, or an auction house, or a publisher, or a TV Producer, nor do I have anyone paying me anything for what is in my head except customers that buy my handy-work. So, if you don’t agree with what you read here, drop me a note, and let’s stay friends, and remember you got what you paid for.
My goal is to foster a relationship with the past, carving out a future based on fact, not fluff and marketing. There are many things to learn from the American Craftsman & the English Arts & Crafts movements that will help those of us today. In my opinion, circumstances do change; people and human nature don’t, so there is a lot to learn from the past.
As a condition of the job I accepted, I did a lot of reading on Mission, Arts & Crafts, Craftsman, and Stickley to produce a commissioned collection of handmade furniture for a family that wanted me to design my own pieces using those old ideals as the basis. They wanted no shortcuts, no plywood, no biscuits, no pocket screws, no floating tenons, but only true mortise and tenon joinery and the finest quartersawn white oak I could find. I could determine my own styling inspired by the old Stickley pieces, but I had each sketch approved before starting just to make sure, each time I was ready for the next piece.
What developed was a set of furniture with carved letters that all speak a message, calling it the “Wisdom Series” as each carved message had a “word” of wisdom. This was a great commission for my little hobby-business. It was so good, in fact, that I quit my day job to dedicate myself to the effort. I spent so much time doing research and designing/building this family’s pieces, that today I am hoping that others will want to purchase my concepts in other work in the future. If not, then it was a fun journey through the history books and several thousand board feet of exquisite quartersawn white oak boards.
What I think I have created for this family will survive the test of time, being sought-after heirlooms, bringing the heirs much joy and financial inheritance should they decide to convert it to cash someday. I think the best term for such work is “functional-art” and I have in my head the makings of another article on that topic, so if you are interested, stay posted.
For the most part, the dates and sources of this information I am spouting are on my website in references and articles I paraphrased, eventhough I can’t recall them all from memory this morning. Including them would take many more hours of work than I want to dedicate to this blog entry today.
Since all of my reading was book based, and not actual interviews with historians, and the fact that actual people I refer to have since died, I may have some facts wrong due to my reading wrong facts, so take everything with that grain-of-salt and disclaimer. Ok, I have spent almost a full page making disclaimers, how about some information, right?
I will start first with the term “Craftsman” as it is the most accurate, and yet, least understood term. Gustav Stickley, went to England on vacation in the late 1800’s (actual date is on my website). While in England, he fell in love with the Arts & Crafts movement and it’s ideals.
The report is that Gustav grew tired of the Victorian adornment, so when he arrived back at home, he started working on the design ideals for his own work. The designs were inspired by what he found in England, but different, more simple, more straight, and larger in proportions. There were to be none of those swirling and floral carvings found in the Victorian movement.
What Gustav developed was “genius” in my analysis, being that it was not English A&C, but something truly American, something he could truly call his own, so he did, and ran with it, calling it “Craftsman.” This term is perfect for marketing, as it renders the feeling for a buyer that something is well made, handmade, or artisan made. Although none of these terms actually applied in reality. Few people in this modern world can say they started a “movement,” but Gustav surely could say it if he was still around today. The sad part is how diluted, over used, and misused the term has become today as marketers try to sell their company’s new work and Gustav’s coat tails, and I am one of them.
Designing with simple lines worked for the American public, who were apparently ready for something different than Victorian, which I can understand. The style, self-titled “Craftsman,” became better known as “Mission” (more on that below) with the publicity that followed. Gustav and his team of designers and draftsmen, created sketches and plans and hired traveling salesmen to collect orders. As the business grew, Gustav published furniture plans, wrote a magazine, designed houses, all of which supported the new concept of “simple.” He was the King of this self-created reality, and I honor him for that effort.
It was a great concept, tell people how to decorate, why they should do it, and sell them the plans and furnishings that you encourage them to use. Then, invite some respected English A&C guys to write a guest article once in awhile in your magazine, later hire one of them to redesign your work, and you make yourself a “movement.”
Honestly, I don’t know why more designers don’t work this way today. Today, we seem to be more driven by “speed” and “cheap” and shows prosper on TV where people redo their neighbor’s room with a foam paintbrush, some used furniture, a staple gun, and hot-melt glue it all together. That is another subject, for another day though.
But, while I am distracted, wouldn’t it be cool if we could buy a Sam Maloof House plan, with furnishings all designed and plans published, and a monthly fix of splendid writings and philosophy by Sam in a magazine that came in the mail? He might be as responsible for the studio furniture movement’s growth in this country as Gustav was with Mission styling and the hand-made ideal. However, Sam’s work is handmade, Gustav’s was not.
George & Mira Nakashima:
As a sidebar, another important Character in the studio furniture movement that Sam Maloof has ridden was George Nakashima. In his daughter Mira’s biography/autobiography about the company’s work, she says that the business nearly died with her father, because he had so well marketed a concept that he worked alone, which was not the truth. Mira is a wonderful designer and builder in her own right, but she is honest in her book about how hard staying afloat after her father’s death had become because he portrayed himself in a fashion that sold his furniture well, and that was that he worked alone. She says that after he died, the company had to cut back to six employees, who also had their hours cut, and who then worked slowly drawing out the work to keep a job. Ok, there was a point there, but back to the Stickleys.
The furniture plans were published in the Craftsman magazine and compiled into books with the thought that people would want to build their own furniture. I’ve learned from experience that trying to follow a Gustav plan can be difficult because the plan doesn’t include all of the dimensions, or the details of the joinery, and sometimes the drawings aren’t to scale, especially the 3-d pictorial drawings. I’m sure it was quicker to draw and publish that way.
I just finished up a handsome Craftsman Mirror for a customer at Christmas time according to a J&JG Stickley catalog drawing no. 65. I don’t know what the corresponding Gustav Stickley item number was, but I would imagine he had one. The Stickley drawing in the catalog was not to scale, so when I held up a tape measure to show the customer the proportions listed, they agreed that they should be altered, as the published dimensions didn’t match the size mirror a person would want hanging on a wall by the front door. I used Gustav’s styling, but altered the proportions.
I read once that the confusion caused by leaving out detail drawings and using out-of-scale proportions was done on purpose by Gustav, so that people would get frustrated trying to build their own furniture and would buy the pieces completed, or as kits, from his factory. But, I didn’t document where I read that, so being unable to prove the source of that “fact,” it may not be fact.
Here is the real complicated part of trying to “slot” the Craftsman style though, Gustav was struggling to stay competitive in the 19-teens, and so he ended up hiring a designer from England’s A&C fame to come and redesign his Craftsman work. What developed for a few short years before bankruptcy was a lighter, more curvy, inlayed, carved, and decorated form of furniture, and a forerunner to the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras. It still had some “Stickley” in it, but it was surely different.
I just saw a Gustav Stickley late-era chair appraisal on the new 2007 episodes of PBS’s Antique Roadshow, which describes this change in styling. So, if a person tries to say that Gustav’s work in the early 1900’s was “Craftsman”, what do they call his very different work 10-12 years later after he hired the new designer?
The appraised piece was shorter, thinner, made with narrower boards, had curved aprons under the seat, and had inlayed designs that look very Art-Nouveau in the back slats. I think the episode is labeled Honolulu, HI 1, 2, or 3, I can’t remember which of the three episodes it was in. You’ll just have to watch them all, they are great.
The term “Mission” developed from a humble start in a newspaper article where a salesman of the new Gustav Stickley Craftsman furniture line was traveling around selling orders for the items drawn in his little catalog. The salesman told a newspaper reporter that there was a table similar to “that one,” pointing to the drawing in his catalog, “in a Spanish Mission in Southern California.” The newspaper printed the term “Mission” in connection with the story’s headline and sidebar, and the name stuck across the country and “Mission” was born. So, in summary, Mission is Craftsman, and vice versa in today’s language.
Spanish Colonial (Sidebar):
What is confusing though, is that the term “Mission” should really have been reserved for furnishings in the “Spanish Colonial” style, as it was the Spaniards that founded the old Roman Catholic Missions and furnished them. So, the Mission’s furnishings are actually “Spanish Colonial”, which is a term that galleries today loosely call “Santa Fe Style” in today’s language.
I met a cool man at the Western Design Conference who makes a good living building Spanish Colonial boxes and furniture in Santa Fe, NM that are inspired by the ones that were shipped in on the Spanish Ships. I won’t give his website address, as the last time I tried to give publicity to a fellow exhibitor’s website, he threatened me with legal action saying I had broken federal laws giving out the name of his website (remember that one Martin?). Yea, right, but ok, I won’t try to help the other guys again.
Apparently, this man from Santa Fe can’t build these Spanish Colonial-inspired pieces fast enough. While trying to get to know this artistic man a little, I posed the question to him, “wouldn’t you really call this Mission?” I was hoping for some dialogue on the topic and the misuse of the term Mission, but he was not happy with that term, and I didn’t want to offend him, so I dropped the subject. Ok, I’m sidetracked again, so back to the question.
So, it was newspaper publicity that drove the name of Stickley’s “Craftsman” to the name “Mission,” and it no longer has anything to do with the old Spanish Colonial styling found in Southern California Roman Catholic Missions. Think what would have happened if Stickley had the Internet at his disposal?
This is no small matter mind you, as there is some confusion among antique collectors, stores, and galleries. I know this because several I have questioned think all that is “Stickley” is Gustav’s work, or they don’t realize that there were two companies that are called “Stickley” today (more on that thread below). I have found people that felt they knew a lot about their hobby collecting Stickley work that didn’t realize there was a difference between L&JG Stickley (Gustav’s brothers) and Gustav Stickley’s work. There aren’t many differences in styling, but there are differences in the type of joinery and the use of solid wood.
Personally, if I found one of Gustav’s factory built chairs, I would be in awe. However, if I found an L&G Stickley chair I would be offended, just on principal. You will have to keep reading to find out why, if you care?
However, today, collectors clamor for furnishings in either “Stickley” name, and for the uninformed, it all gets blurred together as “Stickley” Don’t believe me? Just use the name “Stickley” in eBay, and see how people horde to your listing of whatever you are trying to hock.
Gustav called his movement “Craftsman,” as he wanted to present an ideal of a hand made line of furnishings inspired by what he saw in the early days of the English A&C movement. Remember, those self-employed artisans working in their home shops? What happened to that? Oh yea, they all went broke and rode into the factory to do repetitive work, got repetitive joint disease and retired early with disability. I’m just funning around, don’t hate me, try to smile a little.
Gustav designed homes, selling the house plans as well, and many of them were built, often called “Bungalow”, or “Craftsman” homes in today’s language. They are located all over the country, many times in whole neighborhoods of similarly designed homes. They are also hot commodities when they come up for sale today.
There were “Craftsman-inspired” factories all over the country at one point, many of these selling the furniture in pieces that had to be assembled by the buyer. I studied an old rocking chair in an antique store a year ago that had a label under the seat bottom identifying its maker. I didn’t recognize the name of the company, nor can I remember the name this morning. But, under the seat of the shabbily built, falling apart, rocker was a paper label with all of the major pieces labeled with a letter (A, B, C, D, etc.) and what piece fit into what part. The chair was only $65 at the antique store. When I first saw the abused little chair sitting there and it’s price tag, I quickly got down on my knees to thoroughly scan the heritage. I was looking for the famous Stickley Compass Bow label, or brand, which it didn’t have. That is when I found the assembling instructions label. I know, I know, I should have purchased the chair just for historical preservation, as I am sure the label will be ruined when an amateur refinisher tries to repair the old dilapidated rocker and sprays it with polyurethane to sell it on eBay for a huge price using the name “Stickley” in the title of their listing, ugh.
There are a couple of good magazines on the Craftsman/Mission home style and they have several trade shows each year. One of the magazines is called American Bungalow. I liked it so much that I ran an ad in the magazine for my Arts & Crafts work in the Summer 2006 issue, and again in the Winter 2006 issue. The people that read this magazine love the Craftsman/Mission styling, and so the magazine articles and advertisers support this buying niche. My work that is shown in the magazine is decidedly “decorated Arts & Crafts,” and so it could actually be “offensive” to a reader that is a staunch “Craftsman” collector.
Arts & Crafts:
Now, finally addressing the term “Arts & Crafts” (A&C). The A&C movement was an English invention, and as many things are in life, appears to be more of a “ideal” than a reality, or a single styling look. The “ideal” was that small artisan shops built beautiful things themselves, and sold them to average, middle class people. This was a backlash to the industrial revolution, and the people that founded the movement did a lot of publishing to promote the ideals of buying hand made work by local artisans. The concept was to counter the “evil” factory-centered industrial revolution that caused skilled artisans to throw their tools down and ride on the train to town to work at the big factory because they could no longer compete with the factories on price.
This would be the same as myself promoting my designs and furnishings as being built in my little 732sqft shop behind my house, by my two hands, all the while ordering it from a subcontractor in Indonesia. I would then just open their crates, pull off their “made in” stickers, affix my label, and sell it as a DeCou Crafted original piece. That is just wrong in my book, but that is what I found when I started reading about the years of the English A&C movement. I was offended not because of the practices they used, but by the deception portrayed on the buying public. “Sell what you say, say what you sell is my policy!”
Remember those old grainy photos you’ve seen in books of the industrial areas of London with huge black smoke pouring out of their stacks? Just think about the conditions inside the building, whew. Anyway, there were some futurists and free thinkers that had trouble with this, and envisioned a market for hand-made artisan work again. This concept was accepted well, and the movement grew strength. What I found really amazingly ironic was that the forerunners of the movement had for their customer base the families that owned the industrial plants. Just look through the books of the old English A&C homes, and see what the occupations of the homeowners were. The same people that made money by putting self-employed artisans out of work didn’t want to decorate their homes with the junk their plants built, but rather with the, much more rare, hand-made items from artisans. Isn’t that ironic?
So, the poor one-man shops were shutting down, and the factories were putting them out of business. Sounds familiar today doesn’t it? Today, the “factory” is in another country, but at the time, it was English factories that were the worry for the English “self-employed artisan.”
As I did my reading, it became obvious that the “A&C ideal” was more theory than reality, as many of the front runners of the movement hired lots of people and put together large rooms of these workers to build their stuff repetitively, all the while, publishing how wrong it was to put this band of simple “artisans” out of business.
They would simply say that they hired the artisans, and put them together. In some cases they published photographs of a few hundred people working in dark, industrial looking, large rooms, with the subtitle on the photograph telling the reader that these were highly skilled artisans working together to build items efficiently. This sounded a lot like a factory to me, so I realized early on in my reading that a lot of the hype was just that, hype. Marketers today aren’t any different. Branding and persuasion by appealing to the “heart” is still what sells to us all, my work included. The difference in my view is that I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. People would just find out anyway, why not just honest?
For the collector, the true gems of this A&C period are the items actually made by an English self-employed artisan working alone in his/her little shop. Two wars in that country also had some impact on this process, and what came out after WWII was different than it was during the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. I mean, who cared about who crafted the vase your flowers were in when your house had been bombed? In fact, who cared about flowers while they were trying to build their lives over again?
The artisans were replaced by people trained in war factories, building important things like munitions, guns, tanks, fighter planes, ships, helmets, uniforms, etc. After the war, those efficient factories and workers were well trained to create products to replace those that had been destroyed, or postponed for a bigger purpose of winning the wars. Those pesky Germans really messed things up in those years of the first half of the 1900’s.
The front-runners of the English A&C movement advertised that they bought items from artisan shops, reselling them, but the reality was that they built their own “factories,” and seemingly tried to hide it. It is just more economically competitive to build items in a factory where the worker does repetitive work everyday, and so the all mighty “pound” (dollar) won out in the end.
So, in summary, the reality was that the items built by actual one-man artisan shops were so much more expensive than factory made items that only the rich and famous could afford them, which was counter to the “ideal.” The A&C movement was an “ideal,” an “image” of a small artisan’s shop, not a single styling, and at the time it included everything from upholstery fabric, to curtains, to wallpaper, to lamps, place settings, to home design, and also furniture. As time went along and it became more popular, even the Self-Employed Artisans were sacrificed in the process, using only their enduring “image” to sell factory products. Also, I think as people wizened up to the deception that factories were actually turning out items for sale, all-the-while promoting the artisan ideal, people lost interest, and looked for the next “new thing.”
In general, A&C furniture had smaller, thinner lines than Stickley’s Craftsman/Mission work, and it included carving, inlay, curved boards, and other “decorations,” all of which Stickley was opposed to in his early years of production. But, Stickley’s designs evolved as well, and so it is hard to define a certain piece of furniture as “Stickley” over his 15-20 years of work, as it began to look more English A&C toward the end of the business.
I paraphrased some excerpts of some of the books I studied on the subject and posted them on my website in the “Articles” section, for people wanting to sort out all of the terms, separating fluff from fact. What I did was go to the library and checked out everything they had on the subjects of A&C and Mission/Craftsman and started reading, including any biographies of the founders of either movement. I found the reading fascinating, as in many cases it conflicted with what my preconceived notions were, and what I had been told by others. I also enjoyed seeing that “self-employed artisans” had a hard time paying their bills in those days as well. Some things don’t change. Is that comforting to you?
People that collect my work, collect it because of the old A&C “ideals.” They like the idea of buying furnishings that have been built in a one-man shop, eventhough the prices are quite significantly higher than factory built furnishings. I hope to find 2 to 4 more each year of these romantic hearted people over the next 25 years.
And last, but not least, I would love to see a group like the lumberjocks who have pooled their resources, power, influence, synergy, and ideas into a new movement of artists. We don’t have to be driven by the same styling, but more importantly by the same ideals, being pure, open, honest, and homemade. My momma always said I was a “day-dreamer and hard to work with.” Maybe after all is said and done, we’ll find that there is a bright future ahead for the Self-Employed Artisan in the age of cyber-space. If not, then it has been a fun journey for me so far, and I’ll start dusting off my resume again.
Thanks for listening,
this writing is protected by copyright M.A. DeCou 3-5-2008, all rights and priviledges reserved.
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com