Document 27: Gustav Stickley -- "The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making" 1903


Source to be examined: Recent inroads into the understanding of prescriptive literature for the home as a specific form of visual and literary representation were made in a special issue of this journal, edited by G. Lees-Maffei, ?Domestic design advice?, Journal of Design History, vol. 16, no. 1, 2003.

House Beautiful 15 December1903, pages 78-93

In 1966, John Crosby Freeman wrote a small treatise on Gustav Stickley. In his book, Crosby declares that

"The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making" is "one of the most important articles of his career.... [I]t correctly labels his style and analyses its sources and aspirations."

Source: John Freeman Crosby, The Forgotten Rebel: Gustav Stickley and his Craftsman Mission Furniture Watkins Glen, NY: Century House, 1966, page 16.

Freeman's title for this book, The Forgotten Rebel tells us much about Freeman's insight about a revival of public interst in Ats and Crafts design, but more about the unmistakable signs of a new beginning for widespread public interest in the second Arts and Crafts era. (Only in the early 1970s, evidently, are public events of sufficient impact to command widespread public attention, sufficient enough to signal unmistakalby that a "second revolution" in Arts and Crafts is underway. Buut Freeman deserves much credit for his inightful predictions in 1966.)

On page 44 of Crosby's chapter 5, "on the craftsman movement", is a reference to his embrace of machines for woodworking and the "square lines of Arts and Crafts" design. That is, "rectilinear" -- announcing the work of the table saw, i.e., makes "straight" lines, definitely integral features of Arts and Crafts" design. Stickley's "The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making" makes this notion implicitly.

Also Crosby claims that the connection between the manual training movement and Arts and Crafts movement is intimate. Manual training education in the early 1900s is covered here.

Another take on this matter of machine woodworking vs manual woodworking emerges when we look at definitions of "craftsman" taken from the Dover copy of "craftsman homes" comes, copy several chs toward the end of the book, with particular concern for "vulgarity" on page 152, "untrammeled individualism" on page 153, "primitivism" on page 158, "home craftsman" on page 160, "revolutionized manual training" on page 170, and "cabinet-making at home", on page 170.

Source: Gustave Stickley, Craftsman Homes: More Than 40 Plans for Building Classic Arts & Crafts-Style ... New York: Dover Press, 2002

construct decoration, don't decorate construction - pugin-mercer -- Stickley, Wright, and many others returned again and again to this passage in defense of their work.

The point is that several factors, outside the purview of amateur woodworking, needed to be in place, before amateur woodworking became an matter, psychological and social, issue of interest. Leisure time, sufficient disposable income to purchase hand and power tools, electrification, the development of an economic fractional horsepower motor, space for a workshop, all of these things needed to be in place before amateur woodworking could take off.


Stickley's Craftsman Workshops 1904, an image from What is Wrought in the Craftsman Workshops, a 1904 booklet issued by Stickley.

Stickley's "The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making" in the box below -- makes this notion implicitly. As the 19th century closed, the "embrace of the machine" became an issue on both sides of the Atlantic because of the "preaching" of John Ruskin and William Morris, both of whom opposed the excessive embellishments of machine-made Victorian furniture and the harsh conditions of labor suffered by workers in all factories, not just furniture factories.

In 1901, Frank Lloyd Wright, at the time quickly becoming a renowned architect in America, championed the combination of "Art and Craft of the Machine"

I'll be writing more on this theme in the future, including posting the text and images of Stickley's 16-page article, "Home Training in Cabinet Work: New Series of Practical Talks on Structural on Structural Wood Working", in his periodical, The Craftsman 7, no. 6 March 1905.

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GUSTAV STICKLEY on "The Structural Style in Cabinet-Making"

Three-Quarters of a century ago, the modern meaning of the word "craft" was unknown in America But at that time a young student, destined to become one of our national poets, profiting to the fullest by his Wanderjahre, carried away with him from the old town of Nuremberg a deep sense of the nobility of labor, a recognition of "the long pedigree of toil." The youthful enthusiast addressed himself to deaf ears. Long afterward, wherever the tongue in which he wrote was spoken, the artisan was neglected, and his work despised. But slowly these conditions have grown less hard; the workman is gradually gaining in dignity and power, the workshop is taking on many of the attributes of the school. As a consequence, society is assuming a more organic form since its constituent units are growing more and more interdependent. As a further consequence of this increase in dignity and power newly conquered by the workman, a popular art is developing. The maker and the user, brought into close relationship, are coming to understand each other as they have never done since the Middle Ages, while art is disclosing itself in its true nature, as an essential, a positive necessity, of life.

The handful of English medievalists who instituted the arts-and-crafts movement looked forward as well as backward. Their vision was equally clear and eager in both directions. They felt and knew that the beauty of the past could be translated into the simplicity of the present and the future without loss of force and substance.

Superfluous belongings, ostentation, and luxury have always been used by the rich and powerful as a means to impress and to awe those who were too poor to possess and too ignorant to understand. But as a knowledge of aesthetic principles spreads among the people, as it is found that beauty of environment may be obtained by simple means and small expenditures, the old luxury and superfluity become like the methods of warfare and defense of past generations-methods that prove ineffectual before the advance of civilization. The mingling of the Orient with the West, the deep study of science and sociology, the influence of such artists as Puvis de Chavannes, have all been powerful factors in the worldwide impulse toward simplicity in life and art. The leaders of all divisions of men are now earnestly seeking to recognize, display, and emphasize the structural idea; the idea that reveals, explains, and justifies the reason for the existence of any being, organism, or object.

Art is the true and perfect reflection of society. Therefore, we find symmetry among the Greeks, sublimity and mystery in the Middle Ages, the exuberance of long repression in the period of the Renaissance. In our own epoch-making time, the impulse is equally sincere, spontaneous, and strong. It is toward the expression of the structural idea. This is particularly true in America, whose leaders, experimenting because, like Luther in the Reformation, they "cannot do otherwise," are producing results in government, economics, and applied science that draw upon us as a nation the respectful admiration of peoples of older training, experience, and culture. This experi­mentalism is firmly based and legitimately active. It does not produce for effect, or work toward pre-arranged, definite, and limited results. Its creations are like those of nature herself. They are conceived with passion, and come warm and living from the matrix. Therefore, as art is the reflection of the spirit of the times, we find all about us recognition of what is termed in the studio and the shop "the American style"; a phrase to be avoided, since it offers a limited and dwarfed conception of the great movement to which it would give a name.

This unanimous search for the structural idea is significant. It is the mark of an organic period, an assurance that our century. will represent to those who shall succeed us something more than a cycle of years. In spite of ourselves, we must express the impulses of our time. In our works and words we must, for aught that we can do, represent our own epoch, nation, and hearts, Our sole power lies in properly training ourselves that we may not be extremists; that we may not misrepresent the force of our period, as a figure of Michelangelo misrepresents through exaggeration the structure of the human frame; that we may not present a caricature of our nation, or pervert and squander our individual portion of the Zeit-Geist, as an unworthy heir wastes the riches that he has borne no part in accumulating.

Through the crafts of our time the structural idea finds abundant and facile expression.

Craftsmen are devoting themselves, as never before since the Middle Ages, to the service of practical needs. They are freeing themselves from hampering traditions, dispossessing themselves of the insistent memories of old models. They are swept onward in the great movement toward simplicity and nature.

Among the crafts, that of cabinetmaking occupies a very important place, since it ministers to one of the absolute needs of man -- that is, the need of comfort -- and since it is an adjunct, or rather a branch, of the building art which provides the human habitation. Indeed, it is not too much to assert that as architecture expresses the great aspirations of the times through the medium of public monuments and edifices, so the lesser building art reflects the everyday life and the more intimate thoughts of those who fashion and of those who demand. We have arrived now at a moment when the historic or court; styles of cabinetmaking are recognized alike in Europe and as phases of out-worn art.

We turn to the belongings of Savonarola's cell, of the Spanish mission houses, of the Flemish and Tyrolean cottages, and the colonial kitchens, And all these we prize, not, because of the historical interest, which attaches to them (although it is great), but because they express frankly, and in the proper materials, the essential qualities of a bed, chair, desk, table, or other object, of this class. Nor can it be said that we who lack tradition and precedent are the sole, or even the most fervent disciples of this structural movement. As the "sons of our own works" in all that relates to art and craftsmanship, we should naturally be the first to reject a long- exerted and oppressive influence, just as colonists grown strong, break and  cast off the yoke of the mother-country. But those who have been the most, subservient to old ideas and fixed styles, those who long ruled the decorative and industrial art of the world with an unyielding policy, have preceded us in revolution.

The structural idea appealed to the French innovators in the forms of natural growths, in the holes of trees, in the stalks of plants, and ill the convolutions of flower petals. But in artistic as well as political revolution, the French, of rather certain Frenchmen, were carried to excess and violence, Tito structural idea in art, like the basic idea of government, was perverted by them, and "the wavy line, "the line of flame and smoke, non-structural, or it were better to say destructive, appeared" before the world as the symbol and essence of the new French art. But, as Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, represented the perverts and degenerates of the political cause, so the mad enthusiasts of "the wavy line;" wronged the initiators of the artistic movement. The parallel holds good throughout its course, for as France in the late eighteenth century destroyed the monarchical tradition and propagated democracy, so, in the late nineteenth, she trampled upon the tyranny of historic art and pointed the way to freedom, although she herself, or rather an element of her citizenship, indulged in the wildest vagaries. But in spite of having wasted or perverted much artistic energy, France has done much toward disproving the statement made, some two decades since, by William Morris, that "no designer, however original he may be, can sit clown to-day and draw the form of an ordinary piece of furniture, or vessel, or the ornament of a cloth, that will be other than a development or a degradation of forms used hundreds of years ago."

These words when pronounced contained a large proportion of truth, but the progress of twenty years has largely reduced the measure:

To confine our observation to our own country, we find, as I have before insisted, builders and craftsmen seeking to express in the products of their brain and hand the primitive structural idea. In beginning a work, they, no longer ask themselves, "What is here precedent and tradition?" but rather, "What is the principle, the germ-concept, with which we have to deal?" This is true, especially of the cabinetmaker who, taking simplicity and practicality as his guides, feels that the furnishings of a farm-house kitchen may have an artistic value far beyond those of a costly drawing-room, if the latter be not wisely planned. He understands that the first and most dominant impression of beauty proceeds from the frank acknowledgment of the service to which the object is devoted.

This revulsion to severe simplicity in cabinetmaking has been criticized as pointing to a reversion to log houses and homespun, to a crudity of life incompatible with our actual ideas of culture. The criticism is based upon appearance rather than fact. It is true that our severe and simple style now errs upon the side of crudeness. Yet this very crudity, absolutely structural, is a proof of vital power, and is in itself a promise of progress, since chaos, that is, formlessness, precedes, never follows, crudeness, and since decadence is the natural sequence of over-refinement. Coming after the historic styles, the simple and structural arrests and commands attention, as it could not do did it resemble its predecessors, or seek to compromise with them. But it is yet in its formative period, possessing a debatable quality quite comparable to the appearance of a youth, who, lacking the symmetry of the mature man, attracts by reason of irregularities, which are nothing else than undeveloped beauties.

With time, the asperities of the structural style will be softened. But again, this development must not come through conscious effort, through continual experiment and research, such as reveal them-selves in the work of certain cabinet-makers, exponents of L'Art Nouveau in France, of La libre Esthetique in Belgium, or of the Austrian Secession movement; the development, in order to be sound, must be gradual and moderate--alto­gether like that of nature, which trans-forms the boy into the man.

But all comparisons laid aside, it must be said that in the lesser as well as the greater building art, the structural lines should be obtrusive rather than obscured. Such lines in cabinet-making declare the purpose and use of the object which they form, and are, in their way, as important as the contours which announce a church, an opera-house, or a business structure. Furthermore, these same lines must con-tribute to the decoration of the piece, which should result principally from such modification of the constructive features as will not impair their validity.

Again, the structural lines should not be subjected to the indignity of applied ornament, which, in its nature as a parasite, never fails to absorb the strength of the organism on which it feeds; as is witnessed by the history of the decorated Gothic in both Franco and England, which succumbed beneath the luxuriance of floriated design.

The final justification of the structural style of cabinet-making lies in its treatment of wood as wood; it respects the medium with which it deals, taking full advantage of its qualities, yet making no demands upon it which it is not able to meet. The straight structural lines follow and emphasize the grain and growth of the wood. They draw attention to natural beauties, which in other styles are usually lessened, and sometimes wholly effaced or destroyed. Wood is designed to be cut, and metal to be molded; therefore, when the craftsman fails to recognize these separate and distinct methods of treatment he violates the intuitions of taste and the laws of logic.

It might perhaps be well to add one more point to this plea for the structural style in cabinet-making; even at the risk of giving occasion for the censorious to ridicule the comparison of the small with the great, of an industrial with a fine art. But as democracy advances into the province of aesthetics, the question of relative importance, of major and minor, is less and less frequently raised. Or, perhaps, it were better to say that the question itself has suffered a change of base. It is no longer the class into which the work falls that stamps the thing created as distinguished or insignificant; it is the work itself which receives honor or meets condemnation, according to the measure of inseparable service and beauty, or of pure, artistic pleasure that it gives. A small and fragile vessel of glass, a flower fashioned from enamels, are now honored, side by side, in the Luxembourg, with the modern world masterpieces of painting and sculpture.

Therefore, it will not be considered unpardonable, as once it would have been, to present points of comparison between simple objects of household service and the temple constructions of the Greeks. The latter are at once the plainest and highest examples of the structural style. Their plan is a concept of the primitive man, and, even in their most advanced stage of development, the timber construction, so to speak, is never obscured. The columns, with their fluted shafts, recall more vividly than words can do the boles of forest trees with their grooved bark. The .frieze, with its alternate ornamental markings of vertical lines and circles, is but an allusion to the first type of the temple, when planks, set on edge, and tree-trunks were hastily assembled to form a sheltering roof over the god, the treasure, and the worshipers It cannot be too strongly insisted that in these temples the structural quality was never lost, never even greatly obscured to the eye; that the principle of construction involved was a question of weight and mass, and that from it resulted a whole, simple enough to be included in a single glance; that the impression conveyed was one of harmony and repose, altogether different from the complex, stimulating impression made upon the mind by a Gothic structure reared upon the buttress system of thrusts and min­ter-thrusts. Therefore, to sum up, we may say that these delicately roll lied temples were most simple in plan-simple to the point of crudeness; that in them the structural idea persisted to the end, clear and dominant; that they were developed by the subtle modification of line, by ornament arising from necessities of construction, and appearing, therefore, spontaneous and natural.

To establish this argument it is necessary only to visit some museum in which models of those constructions are shown, and, as one advances from the archaic style through the various stages of development, one feels that simplicity, even crudeness, of plan is the sure, safe basic idea of the builder, whether he practice the major art of architecture, or the minor art of cabinet-making.

We have before referred to the necessity of treating wood as wood, but there is much more to be said in support of the same principle. The limitations of this material must not only be respected. by the cabinet-maker; the qualities of the material must be cherished, cultivated, enhanced. From the careful development of the beauties of grain and Lox Wise there will result much of the refinement necessary to soften the asperity of the structural lines. There will result beauty of color, which shall arrest the eye in its otherwise too rapid seizure of the structural scheme of a comparatively small object. There will result a constant play of light and shade, infinite, and never repeated in its variations. To the development of color and texture by legitimate means in the woods which he employs, the modern cabinet-maker should devote his best energies, to the end that he may aid in correcting a crying evil of commercialism, that he may prove the absurdity of the flooding glaze, which conceals and obliterates the exquisite work of nature, upon which have been bestowed the gifts of the Divine intelligence, and of untold cycles of years.

As to the choice of woods to be followed by the American cabinet-maker, there is also a word to be said. He should work with native elements. The possibilities of our forest products are great, and, furthermore, the impulse of the true craftsman is to love and properly treat the materials which lie nearest to his hand, since they possess for him the endearing qualities of old and familiar acquaintanceship. As it is the impulse of the East Indian to carve into lace-like designs his heavy, close-grained teakwood, so it is the tendency of the American, if left free from the deadening influence of commercialism, to preserve and develop the greatest beauties-that is to say, the texture-qualities-of the oak, the maple, and other forest favorites in the objects which he fashions from them.

Among the native woods, oak should receive the preference, by reason of its susceptibility, its responsiveness, to treatment. Under the action of "fuming," and of other chemical processes, it discloses unsuspected qualities, which lie near its heart. If the expression may be allowed, it is the most human of woods, the most amenable to what may be termed the educative process; that is, the literal drawing out of all that constitutes its value.

The recognition of its beauty is spread­ing, and is being translated into terms of the market-place. Its price has rapidly risen within the past four years, and it is advancing to a place not far below that of mahogany in public and commercial favor. That this is as it should be, may be said without disparagement to the beautiful wood which furnished the material for the masterpieces of 'the Dutch and French craftsmen, for those of Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite, the chief worldly delights of our colonial ancestors. The wood of these masterpieces, if examined with care, will be found to differ radically, in both substance and treatment, from the modern commercial mahogany. The old wood is of extreme hardness, abounding in knots, markings, vein-systems, and all other "accidents" which make for the beauty of a vegetable growth. It was treated by successive applications of oil, and, after each coating, was left exposed to the sun; a process which gave a hard polish to the surface of the wood, accentuated irregularities of color and tone, and in all ways furthered the work begun by Nature herself when the wood was yet a living tree.

If, now, the modern mahogany of the factory and shop be examined, it will be recognized as of the "soft" variety. It is easily worked, as it contains no knots. It is subjected to the glazing process in order to conceal defects of fiber. It is tortured upon a machine, like a victim of the Span­ish Inquisition upon the rack, into swollen forms, or it may be stabbed to the heart by an inlay, equally painful to the sight of lovers of the old masters of marquetry.

The use of mahogany was most legitimate in its day. It was a sign of the times, a result of colonial expansion made by the English and the Dutch. The wood received consecration at the band of many a master. But the touch of genius cannot be imitated, and the hands are dead that gave it. New materials await the working, and new thoughts their development. Then, since the genius of the American is structural, as is seen by his government, his control of natural resources, his mastery of finance, let the building art, the lesser as well as the greater, provide him with an environment in which he shall see his own powers reflected. In the appointments and fitting of his dwelling, let the structural idea be dominant, and the materials employed be, as far as is possible, native products, in order that the scheme may be unified and typical, in all respects worthy to pass into the history of art, since art is the mirror of life.