Gustav Stickley was born in Wisconsin in 1857, the eldest of Leopold and Barbara Stoeckel's eleven children. He apprenticed to his stone mason father at a young age but dropped out of school and the trade when his father abandoned the family. By the time Gustav reached sixteen, the family had relocated to Pennsylvania to be near his mother's relatives. As the eldest child, he accepted the task of supporting the family, working at the Brandt Chair Company, owned by his uncle, where he became a manager and foreman. In 1883, he opened a furniture business with his brothers.
Within five years, Stickley split from the company he formed with his brothers, and partnered with well known furniture salesman, Elgin Simonds, to produce traditional American furniture popular at the time. The firm was successful though unremarkable, affording Stickley the opportunity to travel to Europe to study manufacturing abroad.1 There he found inspiration in the work of William Morris and the writings of John Ruskin.2
Following the dissolution of his partnership with Simonds in 1898, Stickley began to produce his own furniture in the simple arts and crafts style he admired while traveling abroad. He named the firm after himself and adopted a William Morris motto, Als Ik Kan, for his own, with the image of a joiner's compass.
In October of 1901 his publication, The Craftsman, made its first appearance. Issues of the magazine were published monthly and included essays on art and design, crafts and gardening, but also fiction, poetry, and even sheet music. Throughout, the editorial perspective remained steadfast, decrying the effects of industrialization while advocating for simplicity in life, and encouraging a do-it-yourself ethic and aesthetic.
For Stickley, the magazine provided a forum for both his work and his artistic beliefs. He critiqued the over-embellished styles of design, while espousing his own simple forms. Working with a number of architects, he established the Craftsman Homebuilders' Club in 1904. Readers of The Craftsman could order architectural plans for homes published in the magazine. These designs proved so popular, that the title of the magazine became ubiquitous for a style of home, the bungalow.
In what seemed a logical extension of The Craftsman and the Craftsman Homebuilders Club, Stickley proposed an arts and crafts colony in the New Jersey countryside. He began acquiring land in earnest for his community around 1908 and constructed a clubhouse home for his family on the property. However, the concept of the Craftsman farms did not succeed.
At about the same time, in 1913, Stickley opened the Craftsman building in New York City.3 Stickley envisioned the building as an office, showroom, and destination. But the Arts and Crafts building, at 12 stories and occupying space on neighboring blocks in Manhattan, proved to be the undoing of his fortune. Moreover, the failures at the Craftsman Farms proved too much for the business.
The Craftsman ceased publication in December of 1916. Numerous factors, including several business failures, and changing tastes in American furniture doomed the once strong company. Gustav Stickley returned to Syracuse, NY, moving in with his son-in-law and daughter. He died in 1942 in relative obscurity.
1. Gustav Stickley, David Cathers, pp. 16.
2. The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place, Michael Dolan, pp. 177.
3. Gustav Stickley: The Craftsman, Mary Ann Smith, pp. 149.