Document 19: Gustav Stickley -- "The Motif of 'Mission'." 1909

(Text below, by Gustav Stickley, comes from: CHAPTER XIV of a book 1909 by the English author, Herbert E Binstead, The Furniture Styles Chicago: Trade Periodical Co., 1909, pages 179-187.)

Briefly, Binstead, a London-based author of furniture books, published The Furniture Styles originally in 1904. This book -- a primer on furniture styles -- was originally designed for an English audience. Later, seeing an Americanmarket, a Chicago publisher approached Binstead about an American edition, but obviously with the proviso that two chapters be added, on American themes.

Placed in the book -- ahead of the chapter by Gustav Stickley -- is a chapter entitled "Mission or Craftsman's Furniture". by J Newton Nind. (no bio on him yet).

What is odd about the chapters authored by Binstead, are the labels he gives the designs emanating out of William Morris' British-based "Arts and Crafts" industries: Binstead has chapters on "British New Art" -- also called "Quaint" furniture -- and "Art Nouveau" furniture. And, because Morris's creations are discussed in the British New Art chapter, we assume that Binstead simply refuses to acknowledge the label -- its label Arts and Crafts emerged in 1888, out of a conference with that name -- as a legitimate one for the English reaction to the Industrial Revolution.

Now -- keep in mind that Binstead is writing in 1909 -- and followers of Morris -- such as Ernest Gimson and Sidney Barnsley -- are actively creating "Wonderful furniture of a commonplace kind", all handmade, in workshops in the Cotswolds, northwest of London. For me, this furniture is definitely not "Quaint". However, when you look at the "first Morris chair" posted on the right --  perhaps the notion of "quaint" is the appropriate term.

Link to Appendix 11: On the Origin of Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts design styles 

One final note: Since I couldn't find a trace on the Web of the piece by Gustav Stickley, posted below, I uploaded it, thinking that others interested in following Stickley's activities would also like to read it. (I confess that in my research on this history of woodworking project, I haven't yet read the The Craftsman, something I will do as soon as I can swing the CD which contains all the issues. My hunch is that the piece below first saw the light of day as an article in the The Craftsman.)

The Furniture Styles [1904 edition reprinted in 2007, but 1909 chapter by Gustave (sic) Stickley not included.]

An excellent and an inexpensive book on the furniture styles is the one by H. E. Binstead. editor of the Record, a leading London journal of the furnishing trades. The latest English edition of this work has already received approving attention in the columns of Wood Craft and we have now the additional satisfaction of announcing an American issue of it published by the Trade Periodical Co., 255 Dearborn street, Chicago. At a moderate cost the publisher submits a well-illustrated cloth-bound guide to the recognized periods in furniture design. It may be well to remind our readers that the chapters treating of Elizabethan, Queen Anne, Louis XIV., Louis XV., Chippendale, Sheraton, Adam, Heppelwhite, Louis XVI., Empire, British New Art, History in the Furniture Styles and a Chronology of the Furniture Styles are now supplemented by chapters on the Motif of Mission by Gustave (sic) Stickley, editor of the Craftsman, and "Mission or Craftsman Furniture" by J. Newton Nind, editor of the Furniture Journal. These additions are instructive ones and have enhanced the value of a good book. The price is $2.

Source: Wood craft: a journal of woodworking ..., Volumes 9-11 1908, page 151.

one of only a few citations of the chapter by GS in Binstead's 1909 book is in a 2006 bookby Patricia A Johnson: Seeing High & Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture, but I haven't actually examined the actual book, and reading the (incomplete) online version leaves a lot to be desired for getting a take on how Johnson is actually employing GS's "Motif of Mission". Keep posted


Generally speaking the rapid changes in fashion are due to two causes the need of the manufacturer constantly to produce novelties that will sell, and the lack of vitality in the things themselves. To be vital, a thing must be founded on something far deeper than style, it must go back to the beginning and meet as nearly perfectly as possible the need which alone gives it a reason for existence. If a chair be comfortable, well made and fine in structure, proportion, workmanship and finish, and if it harmonizes with its surroundings, it is everything that can be required of a chair, no matter what its style ; and it is a thing that never will go out of fashion. In fact, all styles that last are founded in the beginning upon just these principles, and it is only when the principles are lost sight of in the pursuit of novelty and the desire for extravagance that the style becomes debased and is subject to the caprices of fashion. Every distinct style in furniture, considered in its purity, met the needs and ex-pressed the character of the people who made it and the age in which it was made. It is only in modern times that we see a kaleidoscope of imitations and adaptations from all styles, jumbled together without regard for their fitness or for any permanently satisfying qualities which they may or may not possess. These change as rapidly as the manufacturers can bring it about, for the reason that the manufacturers must produce each year a certain quantity of goods and sell them at a profit in order to keep their plants running. Changes of fashion result from commercialism pure and simple, and the only things that remain unaffected are the things that are sufficiently vital and straightforward to be beyond the reach of commercialism.

The furniture-maker who has any glimmer of the spirit that inspired the old craftsmen whose work was at the foundation of the "standard styles" of today, takes his work too seriously to believe in the policy of turning out novelties annually for the sake of artificially stimulating the market. The manufacturer whose sole idea is to make as much money as possible out of the modern weaknesses of extravagance and the restless desire for change, has no thought except to make something that will sell, and then to make something else that, because it is advertised as "the latest thing," will quickly replace the first and so make possible a second sale. That is the difference between the furniture-maker and the manufacturer as I understand the terms. It is not a question of machine-made product as opposed to something that is the result of handicraft; machine-work or hand-work, considered merely as methods of working, have very little to do with the case. It is a question of the production of something for which there is no real need, made solely to bring profit to the manufacturer and meant to be a temporary appeal to the restless desire for change, as against the making of something that shall take a permanent place as an essential part of the home surroundings and that exists for some definite purpose. The fulfilment of this purpose may mean practical usefulness in the daily business of life, as in the case of a chair, a table or a bed, or it may mean the beauty that is a lasting delight, and that makes a picture, a beautiful textile, a good piece of pottery or an interesting example of carved ivory or beaten metal, worthy to be a cherished heirloom. It is this quality we strive for, and the measure of our success lies in the sincerity of the effort

It is not an easy matter under modern business conditions to turn around and go squarely against convention and precedent, and it seemed a large contract for one man to undertake the task of laying the foundation of a style that should meet the needs of this age and express the dominant characteristics of the American people, but no man call go far wrong when he founds his work upon a great universal principle and does that work honestly and well, for he has behind him the collective thought and common sense of the people, which in the long run is unerring, and which alone can give life to any form of art, for the reason that art is nothing more than the outward expression of the spirit which dominates the age. 

To have begun where the masters of French and English style left off would have been to sound the death-knell of further growth. In these styles the last word was uttered long ago. The field was exhausted, for along these lines nothing could possibly be done to add to the perfection of what had been done. Men like Chippendale, Heppelwhite, Sheraton, and the great French cabinet-makers worked under the influence of the creative spirit that sprang into life in response to the need of their own times, and no man in modern times could improve that work by minor changes and adaptations. The beautiful old pieces not only were made entirely by hand, but by specially trained hands, and there was leisure enough allowed in the making of the comparatively few pieces that were required to give free play to the thought and skill of the craftsman. To attempt to reproduce them by machinery, under modern conditions and the pressure of the enormous demand, would be impossible. It is true that they were, and are, endlessly copied and adapted, but the spirit that created them is gone. My feeling was that the past had expressed itself perfectly, and that it belonged to the present to find a new expression that would be its own. So instead of working any further along traditional lines, I endeavored to go back to the beginning and seek the inspiration of the same law of direct answer to need that animated the craftsman of an earlier day, for the only way to find a new expression was to base whatever was made upon need alone, not the cultivated taste of the man learned in the great styles of the past, but the need suggested by the primitive human necessity of the common folk.

stickley mission dining room piecesThe vital quality of primitiveness does not by any means imply crudeness, but simply the directness of a thing that is radical instead of derived. In my understanding of the term, the primitive form of construction is the form that would naturally suggest itself to a workman as embodying the main essentials of a piece of furniture, of which the first is the straightforward provision for practical need. Also, it seemed to me that the structural idea should be made prominent, because lines which clearly define their purposes appeal to the mind with the same force as does a clear, concise statement of fact. So, after a brief transition state of tentative experimenting, I turned all my attention to making plain furniture that would meet adequately everything required of it in the way of strength, durability, and comfort, believing that a most satisfying quality would be found in the frank revelation of the structural lines which declared the purpose and use of the piece ; intentionally holding to a severity of style that would mark a point of departure from which a rational development of the decorative idea might take place. True decoration must always be a matter of growth, for it is simply the natural expression of the thought and desire of the people who own and use the things made, reacting upon the need of the craftsman to express his own idea of beauty.

One of the greatest evils which art has suffered through the sway of commercialism has been the widespread adoption of a machine-made standard of excellence. The reign of marble tops and silk upholstery, with all their showy ugliness, depended mainly upon lack of thought, or, rather, upon the careless acceptance of the established thing that comes from the diversion of thought into other and seemingly more important channels. All this passes when the craftsman and thestickley dining room 1909 consumer work together toward the production of something that shall satisfy them both, be-cause the arousing of interest inevitably results in the putting of thought, care, and individuality into the making of something that is really needed and that always will be valued because it is an expression of individuality. Also, it puts a check upon over-production, because the same thought that went into the planning and making of the needful thing will invariably discriminate against that which is superfluous.

And this question of over-production is one that grows more serious every year, not only on account of the effect that the constant accumulation of useless and cumbersome belongings has upon our mental and moral development as a people, but because of the rapid depletion of our forests and the growing scarcity of our native cabinet woods. Especially is this true of our American white oak, which in past years has been so abundant. To get the best results from this wood it should be quarter-sawn, which can be done only in the case of very large trees. These are growing so scarce now that at the present rate of consumption it is a matter of only about ten years, or fifteen at the outside, when the supply of trees old enough to be quarter-sawn will be practically exhausted, or at least will have become so scarce as to be very expensive. The effect of our reckless consumption of a valuable wood has already been shown in the case of black walnut, an excellent cabinet wood that for some time has been almost out of the question for general use. Not only was black walnut used extravagantly while it lasted; that might easily have been and yet left us with furniture as valuable as the old mahogany pieces of the eighteenth century. But it was also used foolishly, so that the clumsy, veneered, machine-ornamented pieces, tortured out of all relationship to the honest lumber, have not now even the value of the wood. Too much of the same thing is being done with oak, appalling quantities of which are fed to the machines in factories that turn out furniture not only devoid of artistic merit, but having in it nothing of the fine quality of the oak. When its brief vogue passes it will be, like the black walnut, only a mass of waste material for which there is no demand and no use.

I speak thus strongly because to me oak is the finest of all our cabinet woods. When allowed to retain its real character, its strength and beauty of color, texture and grain give it a value which should endure as long as the piece holds together. It is a sin to cut up a magnificent oak tree merely for the purpose of obtaining material for furniture that might as well be made of any other stickley bedroom 1909wood, but when the sturdy oaken quality not only is apparent in the finish of the piece, but actually rules its structure, there is nothing more lastingly satisfying than oak. When I first began to use the severely plain, structural forms, I chose oak as the wood that, above all others, was adapted to massive simplicity of construction. The strong, straight lines and plain surfaces of the furniture follow and emphasize the grain and growth of the wood, drawing attention to, instead of destroying, the natural character that belonged to the growing tree. Six years of study and experiment have so confirmed me in this belief that I am now endeavoring to discourage the use of any other wood for making Craftsman furniture, for the reason that no other wood blends so completely with the structure in the forming of an harmonious and well-balanced whole. Oak is to Crafts-man furniture what mahogany was to French, English, and Colonial furniture of the eighteenth century, a wood perfectly adapted to the use made of it. Spanish mahogany, of which most of the rare old pieces were made, was a hard, close-grained, fine-textured wood that lent itself naturally to the slender lines, graceful curves, and delicate modeling of the eighteenth century styles. So smooth and solid was it that it seemed almost plastic in its susceptibility to fine modeling, and its surface admitted the most exquisitely minute decoration in the form of inlay and carving.

The great prestige of mahogany has been largely responsible for our failure to appreciate fully the fine quality of our own cabinet woods, especially white oak. Oak furniture that shows plainly what it is, and in which the design and construction harmonize with the wood as perfectly as in the old mahogany pieces, will in time become very valuable, not only because of its intrinsic merit, but because it represents so completely the requirements of the present time! The age of leisure and of daintiness, with its slight and delicate belongings, has passed; this is a generation of straightforward utilitarianism, which is well represented by the strong-fibered and sturdy oak. In future years, when the white oak in turn has been exhausted and furniture is being made of the inferior varieties, pieces that have the real oaken quality will be treasured as heirlooms in this country, as old oak is now in England and on the Continent.