Reviewed by Ishratj Quazi -Herb Stratford’s Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman introduces the life and works of the designer who was famous during the Arts & Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century.
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This documentary goes into the history of what made Gustav Stickley and his work revolutionary in his time. The unique thing about Stickley furniture is that you could tell how it was made by looking at it because it’s almost like the furniture itself is screaming to you through the visible connected pieces and the nails that hold them down. He created a sort of lifestyle by designing pieces that are part of a set. A piece of information about the Arts and Crafts movement is that the style was a reaction to the more industrialized manufactured products. The artists that started the movement wanted to create products that weren’t dehumanizing and were more wholesome in their build. The idea was that the products were simple and that the beauty of the materials used and nature(which the art was inspired by) was evident in the finished goods. So, Stickley who visited Europe during his initial days as a craftsman was very much inspired by the work being done during this time. He liked the use of nature in art and felt that it aligned with what he wanted his furniture to look like. When you look at his work, you can see that the furniture is very straight to the point and beautiful in highlighting the wood and the details that went into making it.
Shortly after the industrial revolution, there was a fight for children’s rights, women’s rights, and in general labor rights. It was a reforming period where workers were tired of the extreme conditions. So a lot of these ideas and issues that were alive during this time influenced Stickley. He wanted to create art that expressed the “strongly individual characteristic of the American people.” His works stem from the needs of common people. Once again, that’s evident in the simplistic but beautiful pieces of furniture. They aren’t my style however but I can see the appeal of Stickley furniture at that time.
His work was revolutionary in America for many reasons as he brought the Arts and Crafts movement here. He defined what the movement meant in the United States and created the whole “craftsman-style” furniture and home decor. It’s an interesting story that I wish was presented in a more engaging style. I feel that for a documentary released in 2021 that talks about a craftsman who was heavily inspired by art, that you’d use more art in the way you’re presenting this film. There are so many mediums this documentary could have used to refrain from having people talk for the entire 67 minutes. It is undoubtedly very detailed but it could be shorter. There is this continuous music score for most parts of the documentary and I’m not sure that it should be an eternal thing. And, suddenly raising the volume doesn’t add any importance to the topic if the music keeps going forever.
I love arts and learning about their history and I would have loved to a different style than the traditional head-talking edits. Stickley was all about breaking traditions, so that would’ve been cool to see a different approach. But, it’s still very informative and I learned a few things about Stickley’s influence on the Arts and Crafts movements in America. It makes you want to visit The Stickley Museum to check his work out.
Director’s Statement-As a passionate fan, collector, and student of the American Arts and Crafts Movement—as well as its architects, designers, and craftspeople. Telling the story of Gustav Stickley has been on my radar for over twenty years. The challenge was to find a way to tell the remarkable story of Stickley’s life and work briefly and succinctly. Given the incredible depth and breadth of his work, this was no small task as his catalog of accomplishments could easily fill a mini-series.
I felt the pressure of capturing the broader story of the Arts and Crafts (A&C) Movement and one of its champions in a way that would be engaging to current aficionados as well as novices. Thankfully, I was able to collaborate with author, biographer and historian David Cathers, who not only offered the depth of his decades-long research and insight but also assisted in making connections to the Arts and Crafts world, Stickley family members and others.
The film took four years from start to finish, and our crew’s frequent trips from the Southwest to the East Coast, Midwest and Southeast offered remarkable access to some of the best examples of Stickley’s work in museums and private collections and offered a chance to meet key figures to help tell the story. Sharing Stickley’s legacy has broadened and deepened my appreciation for his work and the collectors, historians and craftspeople now carrying on the traditions he championed, and I am happy to now call many of these people friends.