The Influencers: How four Stickley designers defined—and redefined—a brand

The Influencers: How four Stickley designers defined—and redefined—a brand

[originally posted January 2021]

For well over a century, Stickley has been a force in the world of furniture, and one with a distinctive, easy-to-recognize look. That amazing hardwood with the breathtaking grain? The visible joinery, the solidity, the proportions? That’s Stickley.

Of course, the brand’s aesthetic began with Gustav Stickley himself, but it didn’t end with him. Meet four key furniture designers who’ve helped keep the Stickley identity alive while adding their own personal stamp. In their work you see the evolution of Stickley design, which changed to serve the times but never abandoned its core principles or the qualities that made it great.

Gustav Stickley

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Gustav Stickley was an original influencer. He looked around at the poorly made, gratuitously ornamented Victorian furniture that crowded American homes, put forward an alternative, and won over admirers and customers across the country. Inspired by the philosophy of the English Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris and John Ruskin, Gus sought a style of furniture that prioritized honest materials over ornament, hand craftsmanship over mass production, and needed function over empty fashion. And there was no doubt in his mind that the result could be, and should be, beautiful.

Solid American hardwoods were Gustav’s medium of choice. He was particularly drawn to quartersawn oak and the unique “ray flake” grain it revealed, so much so that he would face table and chair legs with veneers to bring the grain to every surface. (This was a challenge later solved by his brother Leopold, whose quadralinear-post technique made the veneers unnecessary!) To serve the materials, he sought to keep his furniture “as simple as possible, so that the beauty of the piece may lie in its pleasing form, and in the color and finish of the wood.” Gus also looked to the furnishings of earlier eras and cultures, from Tudor cottages to Spanish missions, for their  “…[g]ood design, sound construction, sobriety, and subserviency of ornament.” He launched his first collection of New Furniture in Grand Rapids in 1900, where his sturdy forms, assertive wood grains, and exposed joinery lay the groundwork for American Arts and Crafts, or Mission, style.

 

 

 Peter Hansen

Through the early years of Mission’s success, Gustav led its design direction, with brief but significant input from Rochester native Harvey Ellis. [Editor’s Note: Ellis’s remarkable contribution will be the subject of its own blog post to come, so stay tuned, Harvey fans!] After Ellis softened and lightened Mission with his curves, color, and signature inlays, the next designer to help keep the style fresh was German immigrant Peter Hansen. This talented craftsman worked with Gustav Stickley beginning in 1906 and later moved to Fayetteville to join Leopold’s firm (the two companies merged in 1916 as Stickley Associated Cabinetmakers, uniting all Stickley designs under the brand name L. & J.G. Stickley). Hansen’s long career with Stickley lasted until 1946.

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The arrival of Hansen corresponds roughly with the appearance of Prairie-style influences in Stickley’s visual vocabulary, though Hansen and Stickley never used that name at the time. Many of Hansen’s most successful designs feature the broad horizontal planes and square spindles reminiscent of Prairie style, combined beautifully with Mission’s elongated corbels and magnificent quartersawn oak. If you know and love the original Prairie Settle (our name!) that’s on display at The Stickley Museum, or the Prairie “cube” Arm Chair, or his 1912 Mantel Clock, then you know and love the work of Peter Hansen.

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William DeBlaay

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Alfred and Aminy Audi became the new owners of L. & J.G. Stickley in 1974 and worked hard to revive the fortunes of a company that had struggled following the death of Leopold Stickley. In 1984, they hired Bill DeBlaay, a graduate of the Kendall School of Design with a noteworthy career at John Widdicomb and Kittinger furniture companies. In the course of a tenure nearly as long as Peter Hansen’s, Bill worked hand in hand with Alfred Audi and launched no less than three landmark collections that helped bring about Stickley’s renaissance.

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In 1989, when Stickley reissued the Mission Collection, DeBlaay reworked original designs by Gustav and Leopold Stickley, Peter Hansen, and Harvey Ellis. The reissue was a huge, unexpected success, reintroducing American Arts and Crafts to a modern audience and bolstering Stickley’s place in furniture history. DeBlaay also designed the Traditional Collection, a nod to Leopold’s popular Cherry Valley colonial furniture; Bill’s version took a more refined, high-end approach, incorporating striking mahogany and other rich materials. And he masterminded the Colonial Williamsburg reproductions that made up the Williamsburg Reserve Collection in 2000, combining original, historical designs with Stickley construction techniques.

 

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Marissa Brown

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In 2018, Stickley hired its current Director of Design, and she turned out the be the perfect person to connect the brand’s past with its future. Marissa Brown, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, developed a deep respect for materials and craftsmanship early in her career when she and her father visited the studio of Danish designer Hans Wegner. She went on to work for American furniture designer and manufacturer Dakota Jackson and spent a decade overseeing furniture design for Martha Stewart’s varied brands.

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Brown’s approach for Stickley uses its original design DNA as a guide, while lightening and softening its look for today’s homes. Her debut collection, Park Slope, achieved this spectacularly with its fresh but recognizable spin on classic Mission. It was warmly embraced by the public, even winning the 2019 ASID Design Impact Award for the Park Slope Accent Chair. She followed up with Walnut Grove, a current best-selling collection that applies Stickley craftsmanship to a more modern, Scandinavian-inspired aesthetic. And coming soon, we’ll see both her wire-brushed oak St. Lawrence Collection and the first installment of Portfolio120, a newly unveiled designer collection that’s already getting noticed by the media! In only three short years, Marissa’s made such an impact that House Beautiful named her one its 2020 Visionaries: people who are “changing the design world—and our homes along with it—for the better.”

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Additional sources:
The Stickley Museum, Fayetteville, New York
Gray, Stephen. The Early Work of Gustav Stickley. New York: Turn of the Century Editions, 1987.