When the American furniture manufacturer Gustav Stickley returned from a trip to England in 1897, he brought back an idea promulgated by John Ruskin (social reformer, connoisseur, premier art critic of his day) and William Morris (utopian, designer, craftsman), who believed that industrialization forced workers to produce endless exemplars of established upper-middle-class styles — of furniture, for instance, or windows or textiles — which had no relevance to their own hard lives. Alienated from their labor and its products, they were therefore alienated from their own nature. Ruskin and Morris wanted to retool manufacturing to allow workers to hand-make tables, chairs, lamps, tapestries, crockery, and other things of use. They called their program the Arts and Crafts movement.
Stickley brought their ideas home to America and essentially reinvented his company to produce and market a new species of home furnishings that would revise the way working people viewed their labor and the way homeowners viewed their lives. The American Arts and Crafts style (often called Mission style, a term Stickley hated) came to dominate American design arts for many years, from ink blotters and cigar holders to furniture and residential architecture. You recognize it in an instant. The settles, rockers, refectory tables, tabourets, sideboards, screens, and armoires, are rectangular, hefty, and stolid, with a bearish grace and voluminous Calvinist unbudgeability. The warm grain of solid wood — Stickley’s craftsmen loved deep oak, smoky ash, and undulant maple — softened Arts and Crafts’ broad-shouldered virility.
The scope of Stickley’s enterprise, from desktop accessories to an entire dining-room setting, is on generous view at the San Diego Museum of Art’s Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement. Stickley was a businessman, maybe a visionary entrepreneur, but he wasn’t an artist, and he finessed English Arts and Crafts’ socially progressive philosophy to suit his own capitalist ends. (Not that it mattered; in 1915 his company went bankrupt.) The pieces weren’t really hand-crafted, they were hand-assembled. Workers cut, sanded, and prepped batches of identically sized components that were then assembled by craftsmen. Curvilinear graces, like a reclining chair’s bowed arms, occasionally lighten the furniture’s blocky solidity. There were other ways of varying the music of the materials: the unforgiving angularity of a board or two-by-two stick would be beveled; the assemblers choose grains that made one piece dance warmly with another; the octagonal “poppy” pieces that served for table tops were rounded off; and the sled feet of desks were planed to look as pliable as slippers. Like Shaker furniture, Stickley’s products venerated simplicity. Unlike the Shakers, who built chairs of ethereal openness because they believed an angel might come by and want to sit a while, Arts and Crafts designers didn’t shy from medieval hardware and chunky, exposed joinery. The hinges on a sideboard look like salvage from a Lord of the Rings set. Much Arts and Crafts furniture features wedge-and-tenon joinery because Stickley wanted the handwork to show. He responded to the revved-up complexities of industrialization by marketing his own romance with simplicity. It was the design equivalent of beneficent fundamentalism.
His simplicity, though, did tend toward the monumental. His furniture looks as if it could squash like a bug the embellished delicacy of late 19th-century design. Through the first decade of the 20th century it lightened up a little. Witness the floral filagree wood-burned into tabourets, the moss-green wall coverings that suggest an arboreal surround, the Greuby tiles gently topping a tea table, and the exquisite inlay Stickley introduced around 1905. (One popular inlay, a flower balanced atop a long stem, looks like an Art Nouveau Vegas showgirl.) But for the most part, Arts and Crafts lacks speed, irony, buoyancy. Its leather surfaces, metalworks, squared-off woods, and hyperbolic rivets make it seem — to this viewer — a little too clubby, self-important, and resolute. But then, I also wanted to try out a deep-chested, leather-cushioned, oversized Eastwood chair. I thought: if I sit and let it devour me, surely I’ll feel content.
Imagine a spacious room pumped up with Stickley’s sober, phlegmatic furnishings, then imagine its walls covered with the shout-out quilts hanging in Bold Expressions, currently on view at the Minghei. Several years ago, a traveling show of quilts from Gee’s Bend, a small African-American river community in Alabama, roused even the most sedate of critics and spectators with its elegantly riotous abstractions. The quilts in Bold Expressions come from the collection of Corrine Riley, who says that while studying at the Art Institute of Chicago years ago, her exposure to modern and contemporary art “inspired me to look for things in the real world that displayed the type of intense personal expression that I was seeing daily at the Art Institute.”
Hers is a “beyond Gee’s Bend” collection, consisting of works from the 1930s to the present, some from Alabama but most from other southern states. When I visited, the galleries were sadly empty (for the bounciest show I’ve seen in a long time) except for three visitors going on about how the quilts are “really modern art, like Mondrian or Paul Klee.” Well, no. These vernacular originals need no canonical precedent to sponsor their complexity and inquisitive beauty. Their boldness teases the eye, and their flyaway asymmetries are pulled into gently tense fields by tenuous balances. Consider the quilts that exploit the “egg-timer” (or hourglass) motif: each uses the same building-block form to create a playful patterning of call-and-response. Others deconstruct the egg-timer into connecting equilateral triangles that look like suave dance-step diagrams.
From ten feet away you see the easy-going patterns that make a quilt cohere, even when the components — pillars tilting against horizontal bars, for instance — have a thrilling capriciousness. Get close and you’ll want to run your hand across the bumpy excitements created by varicolored knotting, inventive piecing, and the undulant mapping that stitching creates. One small panel houses four broad overlapping triangles: white to red to blue to white. The modeling is self-aware and witty without any hint of modernist irony or ostentation. Because this particular quilting tradition, beginning with the freed slaves of Gee’s Bend, runs through mostly poor rural black communities, the materials come from whatever lies at hand and has outlived its use — denim coveralls, tattered muslin window coverings, summery cotton shifts, canvas flour sacks. And the patterns rock: herringbone, plaid, paisley, hounds-tooth, corduroy, and, of course, polka dots. Sometimes a quilt-maker plays with monochromes, like the 1940s Work-Clothes Quilt from Georgia constructed entirely of washed-out tints of blue denim that imitate the shifting blue-gray tones of the nocturnal cycle, and the deft passage from hue to hue takes you out of your head the way good art will.
Unlike anything in the Stickley exhibition, the quilts astonish. You leave your head, so to speak, because you become happy hostage to the form-finding impulses of the artist’s hand, and you can see the hand at work, modeling then revising patterns, building as it goes along, allowing for surfaces pinched, pursed, or pulled to create an energy of abundance. It reminds us of one pursuit of modern artists of other kinds: to find the little that suffices. The quilts of more recent times carry a self-consciousness that older exemplars do not. The random, “crazy” part of Controlled Crazy Quilt from the 1970s is in fact carefully determined: the creator wants us to embrace the wit of how tradition allows precisely cut swatches to look crazier than crazy.
The variety killed me. Though they share motifs, each quilt is a surprise package. One of my favorites contains hundreds of pieces ferociously packed into four triangles whose apexes converge at the center. It has the most congested, choked-up piecing of any quilt in the exhibition, but the congestion has such centripetal energy that it made me giddy. The juicy yellows, jammy reds, and other jumpy colors create a delectable speed and wildness. This is the kind of exhibition that makes me want to clap my hands and shout something happily incoherent. The most endearing and history-tweaking work (given the peculiar institution where the quilts originated) features an American flag, but the stripes are misaligned and the stars look like fatigued, misshapen flowers. ■
Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement is on view at the San Diego Museum of Art until September 11. 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-232-7931.
Bold Expressions: African American Quilts from the Collection of Corrine Riley is on view at the Minghei International Museum until November 6. 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park. 619-239-0003.