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SDMA Exhibits Work Of American Craftsman Gustav Stickley

Aired 6/16/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

The first touring exhibition of the work of American craftsman Gustav Stickley makes a stop at the San Diego Museum of Art from June 18 through September 11, 2011. We speak to a curator from the museum about the Arts and Crafts movement pioneer.

Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement is at SDMA through September 11, 2011.

Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement is at SDMA through September 11, 2011.

Above: Gustav Stickley and the American Arts and Crafts Movement is at SDMA through September 11, 2011.

The first touring exhibition of the work of American craftsman Gustav Stickley makes a stop at the San Diego Museum of Art from June 18 through September 11, 2011. We speak to a curator from the museum about the Arts and Crafts movement pioneer.

Guest

John Marciari, exhibition curator and curator for European Art and Head of Provenance Research at SDMA

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up arts and crafts architecture can be seen in historic buildings all over San Diego. We will hear about the exhibit that features work from one of the founders of the movement. You are listening to KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The arts and crafts design coming-of-age in San Diego emerged at just about the same time at the beginning of the last century. Many of our celebrated historic buildings and neighborhoods were shaped by the style so it is fitting that the San Diego Museum of Art should be presented with the first touring exhibitions of the work of Gustav Stickley one of the founders of the arts and crafts movement. The exhibit's curator John Marciari, curator of the San Diego Museum of Art is here to tell us about it. John, welcome back.

JOHN MARCIARI: Thanks, it's nice to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: First of all what distinguishes the arts and crafts style?

JOHN MARCIARI: Well the arts and crafts style means a lot of different things but it grows out of an English movement, a British movement which is anti-industrial. It is a reaction against cheap industrial goods into mass production society. So at its core it is a bit about simple design, quality materials and a philosophy for living. People often quote the William Morris has said something to the effect of have nothing in your home which you know neither to be useful nor beautiful. That is not the exact quotation but the gist of it is there. This really takes off when it comes to California. The style of houses that arts and crafts fostered with their porches and verandas do really well in California. He becomes kind of an American acetic in the first decades of the 20th century.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Which of Gustav Stickley in particular which came first the philosophy or his preferred style of making furniture.

JOHN MARCIARI: The philosophy certainly comes first it starts in England---

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I mean with him.

JOHN MARCIARI: Stickley is a furniture maker from the late 19th century onward but in he went to England came data conversion he came back and produces so-called new furniture catalog and for the first time produced on the arts and crafts furniture and begins publishing a magazine, the craftsman. So we talk today about Stickley style or craftsman style, his name is synonymous with the arts and crafts. From 1900 onward he only produces arts and crafts furniture as I say in the magazine, the craftsman gives that furniture is ideological backing if you will. It explains what goes into the designs of the furniture, the house design, how you should decorated craftsman house, what kind of textiles or metal ware would be appropriate in a Stickley dining room and so forth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So his name becomes basically synonymous with the design movement as we get into the 20th century here in America. I am wondering what will visitors here see in the San Diego Museum of Art?

JOHN MARCIARI: A lot of it is going to be very familiar. Houses are still being built all over San Diego in what can best be called a craftsman style and you can go into virtually any furniture store today and buy a reproduction and Stickley chair. All of the pieces at the beginning of the show the kind of canonical pieces of Stickley furniture to reclaiming armchairs in the Stickley rocker in simple, heavy oak forms often with leather upholstery often and the evidence of their construction is even there, the attending joints are visible where prior to this they would almost always have been hidden in the history of furniture. You do not have applied ornament. The design itself is the ornamentation of the chair. So a lot of that will look familiar especially the first few sections of the exhibition because it is in the last 20 or so much back in fashion. Although 30 years ago you could have gone to any auction in upstate New York and bought a Stickley chair for almost nothing. This is the oldest of sitting in the attic in a lot of places on the East Coast.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Imagine sitting in that. The article said the pieces that are on display at the exhibition have not been a public display before.

JOHN MARCIARI: That's true. A majority of the pieces in the show are still privately owned. The arts and crafts began a revival in 87 there were a few major shows in San Francisco especially in Los Angeles and Huntington. More recently has done a Greene and Greene show but for the most part these were pieces that were owned by families and that were picked up by collectors before they received popular attention or museum attention. So much of what you will see the exhibition is privately owned. Some of it is still owned by Stickley's family. His great-granddaughter is coming to the opening and she is a donor to the show for example, so a nice family story.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is a whole dining room assembly on display, the whole dining room basically with the tablecloth.

JOHN MARCIARI: Exactly. This replicates a display that is Stickley set up in 1903 for the arts and crafts exhibition which again was one of his ways of spreading the philosophy and the design of the new movement, new for America. It is a very grand dining room with complete with multiple pieces of, a huge dining table, sideboards in not only his furniture. Also there's Marblehead and groovy pottery from Boston and table linens which at the time were not produced by Stickley's company. Later on his company would come to produce textiles as well and there are some of those in the show. Even (inaudible), China will service pretty well the whole is that he was trying to sell the dining room as a magazine it was not limited only to his factories products. He actually was so tied to his philosophy that he would endorse the products of other manufacturers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Remind us, John, what pieces of architecture here in San Diego are hallmarks of the arts and crafts style?

JOHN MARCIARI: Sure. This is part of the reason why we were so eager to get the exhibition when we heard that the Dallas Museum of Art was organizing. The grandest arts and crafts of that remains in San Diego is the Marston house perched there on the edge of the ballpark and this is not coincidence, Marston's department store was the only San Diego distributor of Stickley furniture. So there is a nice residence there. The house was designed by William Hebbard and Irving Gill, high arts and crafts style. But if you drive around Northpark or Mission Hills or (inaudible) or lots of other neighborhoods through the city you will see scores of well preserved arts and crafts houses built-in the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s. Really up to the 20s, then the Spanish-style takes over. For this reason we put together a little section of the exhibition that highlights arts and crafts architecture in San Diego, a little map showing people where to go and look for the stuff and we also talk about some of the artists, potters and painters who were involved with the arts and crafts movement in San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So even though this is a national touring exhibition an intimate part of it is specific to San Diego.

JOHN MARCIARI: That's right. It's a small segment of the exhibition but also seems to be necessary to explain why this was so important for us and we are delighted. We are the third and final, the only venue on the West Coast in the arts and crafts San Diego section we even got a letter written by Stickley's son-in-law and business manager to the owners of Jay Jessop jewelers which sold housewares as well try to sell the craftsman Magazine and home plans and basically the key line of the letter as we hope to make San Diego the city of craftsman sympathizers. That was 1912. It was already the case prepare all the neighborhoods being built around the north and east edge of the ballpark were already being built-in craftsman style.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As you mentioned the craftsman style did go out of style around what would you say the 1920s or so?

JOHN MARCIARI: Goodbye to 20s and there were a lot of reasons for this, part of it is changing taste. In San Diego and Southern California generally the Spanish style takes off. That is partly a response to the building of the ballpark in the Spanish style. Has to do with other factors as well. One of the interesting stories that the exhibition tells us how Stickley in light of changing public taste tried to maintain his designs in his philosophy with some consistency as well as he could. But we also at the end of the exhibition track his decline and ultimate bankruptcy in 1915. The taste had changed so dramatically that he couldn't maintain his arts and crafts philosophy and still have a surviving business enterprise.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gustav Stickley actually had a very long life. I believe he lived to the 1940s. Did he have a sad end with the bankruptcy and living so much longer than the popularity of his hallmark style?

JOHN MARCIARI: I suppose so. And he remained a tinker of a sort. When his own company fell at first there were various attempts to merge with his brothers furniture company, which must have been slightly bittersweet because his brothers had been the main imitators almost forgers of craftsman style furniture for the previous two decades. And the very last piece of the exhibition is a kind of poignant reminder of the unhappy fate of Gustav Stickley's business enterprise. It is a chest of drawers they kept to themselves, that he lived within his bedroom and on the bottom of each current there are samples of different places in the states he was tinkering with for the rest of his life. He could never quite get it out of his system although never again did he find a winning formula if you will either for furniture design or for glazes. But it is an interesting, poignant legacy this was piece of the exhibition.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now John you are the curator of the San Diego Museum of Art's European art collection. How did you get involved with this exhibition of American craftsmanship?

JOHN MARCIARI: This is a question that lots of people seem to be interested in. My own research has lots of people noticing European especially Italian and Spanish old master paintings. But I have long been interested as a kind of sideline, not something I've published on, just something I love in arts and crafts design and philosophy. Initially started with English arts and crafts and then it has kind of expected to American arts and crafts as well. So when the show came up, and we don't have a curator of decorative arts I was happy to volunteer to take it on. I had the whole back story already in my head and have had as much fun doing this exhibition as any other that I've done in the past few years. So I'm really excited about it. It just looks fantastic and I'm eager for it to open.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would you say is the legacy of Gustav Stickley considering that his time in the limelight was rather short, his business went bankrupt, the style went out of fashion for many years. Is there something about this whole philosophy, this whole way of making furniture and objects, does that have a legacy in American design?

JOHN MARCIARI: I think it does and I think there are different ways. One small section of the exhibition traces how Stickley's designs are actually radically modern, very simplified forms. There are pieces of furniture with no handles it all independently prefigures the more industrial minded, the more modern clean design of later in the century. But also it this way that he created furniture in this magazine to support it, I think that is very much the ideal that many furniture makers and home goods producers continue today. I mean, if you flip through, to take us down too many levels, but if you flip through something like a great integral catalog some of these same ideas of selling a lifestyle that you see in those publications were very much a part of Stickley's endeavor. And I think that is his greatest legacy. But there was ever a furniture maker before him who sold everything from the house design to the furniture to the tableware, the lamps etc. and a few a kind of ideology to back all of that, to unify that designed so that is his great legacy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with John Marciari, the exhibition curator and curator for European art and head of provenance research at the San Diego Museum of Art. Gustav Stickley in the American arts and crafts movement exhibitionists SDMA through early September. Thank you, John.

JOHN MARCIARI: Thanks so much for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Join us at this time tomorrow for an analysis of the week's news on Midday Edition roundtable hosted by Alison St. John. KPBS Midday Edition is produced by a group of Megan Burke and (inaudible) the senior producer is Natalie Walsh. Our news producer is Nick (Stoffel), the technical director is Kirk (inaudible) with assistance from Chad (inaudible). Our student assistants are Hillary Andrews, Jocelyn (inaudible), John and (inaudible) Lucas. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Thank you for listening, see you next week.

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