Primitive Furniture

American Primitive Furniture in the Craftsman Style

The final section in Stickley's essay on the history of American furniture making. Stickley here discusses the development of his own primitive or rustic style.

A Young Nation

¶ But during the same period in this country things were on a different basis. Out of the chaos of ideals and standards which had naturally resulted from the rapid growth of the young nation, a vigorous and coherent national spirit was being developed, and amid the general turmoil and restlessness attendant upon swift progress and expansion, it became apparent that we were evolving a type of people distinct from all others, a type essentially American. And the distinguishing characteristic of this type is the power to assimilate so swiftly the kind of culture which leads to the making of permanent standards of life and art that it is hardly to be compared with what might seem to be the corresponding class in other countries. Such Americans have fundamental intelligence and the power of discrimination, and the direct thinking that results from these qualities inevitably produces a certain openness of mind that responds very quickly to ness alone.

Art of the People

¶ In this country, where we have no monarchs and no aristocracy, the life of the plain people is the life of the nation; therefore, the art of the age must necessarily be the art of the people. Our phases of imitation and of vulgar desire for show are only a part of the crudity of youth. We have not yet outgrown them and will not for many years; but as we grow older and begin to stand on our own feet and to cherish our own standards of life and of work and therefore of art, we show an unmistakable tendency to anything which seems to have a real and permanent value.

Craftsman Furniture

¶ This quality was shown in the immediate recognition and welcome accorded to Craftsman furniture when we first introduced it ten years ago. Like the Arts and Crafts furniture in England, it represented a revolt from the machine-made thing. But there was this difference: The Arts and Crafts Furniture was primarily intended to be an expression of individuality, and the Craftsman furniture was founded on a return to the sturdy and primitive forms that were meant for useful get away from shams and to demand the real thing.

The American Nature

¶ And to an American the real thing is something that he needs and understands. The showroom quality is all very well when it comes to proving how much money he has or to establishing a reputation for owning things that are just as good as his neighbors. But for use he wants the things that belong to him, the things that are comfortable to live with ; that represent a good investment of his money and have no nonsense about them. Furthermore the true American likes to know how things are done. His interest and sympathy are immediately aroused when he sees something that he really likes and knows to be a good thing, if he is able to feel that, if he wanted it and had the time, he could make one like it himself.

Necessary Characteristics of American Furniture

¶ So strong is this national characteristic that it is hardly overstating the case to say that in America any style in architecture or furniture would have to possess the essential qualities of simplicity, durability, comfort and convenience and to be made in such a way that the details of its construction can be readily grasped, before it could hope to become permanent. We are not so many generations removed from our pioneer forefathers that we have grown entirely out of their way of getting at things. We may not always stop to think about them, but when we do our thought is apt to be fairly sound and direct.

Alien Influences

¶ The prevalence of cheap, showy, machine-made things in our houses is due chiefly to the lack of thought that takes on trust the word of the dealers, and every year brings us more abundant proof that they do not in any way represent the real tastes and standards of the people. All machine-made imitations of furniture which belonged to another country and another age and represented the life of a totally different people, are alike to the average American. If he can get them cheap, he has at least the satisfaction of feeling that they make a pretty good outward show for the money; if they are expensive, there is something in being able to afford them and to know that his house has in it rooms which are fairly successful imitations of the rooms in French or English palaces two or three hundred years ago. But in all this there is no real thought and nothing that approaches it. It is only when a thing has the honest primitive quality that reveals just what it is, how it is made and what it is made for, that it comes home to us as something which possesses an individuality of its own. It is not an elaborate finished thing made by machinery with intricate processes which we cannot understand and about which we do not care in the least. It is something that we might make with our own hands. Therefore it is something that sets us to thinking and establishes a point of contact from which springs the essentially human qualities of interest and affection. Understanding just how it is made, we are in a position to appreciate exactly what the artisan has done and how well he has done it. From this understanding comes the personal interest in good work that alone gives the vital quality which we know as art.

Primitive Furniture Style

¶ Many people misunderstand the meaning of the word primitiveness, mistaking it for crudeness, but "primitive" used here to express the directness of a thing that is radical instead of derived. In our understanding of the term, the primitive form of construction is that which 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 we hold that the structural idea should be made prominent because lines which clearly define their purpose appeal to the mind with the same force as does a clear concise statement of fact. This principle is the basis from which the Craftsman style of furniture has been developed. In the beginning there was no thought of creating a new style, only a recognition of the fact that we should have in our homes something better suited to our needs and more expressive of our character as a people than imitations of the traditional styles, and a conviction that the best way to get something better was to go directly back to plain principles of construction and apply them to the making of simple, strong, comfortable furniture that would meet adequately everything that could be required of it.

Uniqueness of American Craftsman Style

¶ Because Craftsman furniture expresses so clearly the fundamental sturdiness and directness of the true American point of view, it follows that in no other country and under no other conditions could it have been produced at the present day. The history of art shows us that a new form of expression never develops from the top and that nothing permanent is ever built upon tradition. When a style is found to be original and vital it is a certainty that it has sprung from the needs of the plain people and that it is based upon the simplest and most direct principles of construction. This is always the beginning and a style that has in it sufficient vitality to endure, will grow naturally as one worker after another feels that he has something further to express.


¶ In making Craftsman furniture we went back to the beginning, seeking the inspiration of the same law of direct answer to need that animated the craftsmen of an earlier day, for it was suggested by the primitive human necessity of the common folk. It is absolutely plain and unornamented, the severity of the style marking a point of departure from which we believe that a rational development of the decorative idea will take place.

Other topics on Stickley furniture style in this section include: Page 1: American Furniture History, Page 2: Arts and Crafts Furniture, Page 3: Art Nouveau Furniture.

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