Walking through the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement” felt oddly surreal and familiar. I’d seen this stuff before, and the rooms felt more historical than decorative. I knew that grandfather clock – when I was five I thought it could eat me – and I knew those dining room chairs. I was walking through the DMA’s Chilton Gallery, true, but I was also walking through distinctive ghostly spaces of a 1970s childhood. My great-aunt Wardie had these things in her house on the outer banks of North Carolina. The house she inherited was large, but at no point in the prior nine decades could her family have afforded real Stickley furniture. Decades before Martha Stewart, Stickley started a magazine called The Craftsman to promote his products. The magazine also included patterns so those who could not purchase honest craftsmanship might construct it on their own. My burly Welsh forebears must have used patterns from The Craftsman to furnish Aunt Wardie’s home when the house was still young, and those handmade furnishings lasted decades, just as Stickley envisioned.
If you haven’t visited the exhibition yet, here’s a little background for your trip:
Stickley basics: First name Gustav. Company made furniture, textiles, metalwork and lighting. Spearheaded American Arts & Crafts movement at turn of 20th century. Unaffected, simple. Wood, leather.
Gossipy nuggets: Stickley worked in a prison. He drove out an early business partner. He tried to start a boys’ boarding school in New Jersey but failed because he had no students. He bought a 12-story building in Manhattan that he could not afford. He went bankrupt.
The DMA doesn’t fear snow: There was a freeze in the days before the exhibition opening – you might recall the Super Bowl – and though driving conditions were dangerous, an intrepid small army of preparators, registrars and graphic designers found enough street traction to make this show open on time. They do not want recognition, not even when they go above and beyond. Which is what they did.
But something is still missing: Barbra Streisand wanted real Stickleys. In 1989, she purchased a pair of oak corner cabinets Stickley had built for his own dining room. Ten years later, she put those pieces back on the Christie’s auction block. I wanted to know why. Had her taste changed? Or did she and the corner cabinets have some sort of falling out? I tried to send her an e-mail through barbrastreisand.com, but that road could only result in a (stamped) autographed picture and no answers. The next best alternative was to contact her label, Sony Music:
“Hi, I’m actually writing a piece about Gustav Stickley, one of the artists (decorative furniture) that Barbra has collected. I would like to get a quote from her, if possible, on that topic. Thank you.”
Barbra never wrote me back. I was warned she was something of a white whale for quote hunters, so I was emotionally prepared for failure.
I then tried to locate her 2010 book, My Passion for Design: A Private Tour. The Dallas Public Library owns two copies; both were checked out. Somewhere in this city at least one household overthrows existing design standards to conform to those of my warbling, elusive white whale. And so to …
Streisand Plan B: I find a New York Times blog post about the book. The post does not mention Stickley directly, but it does itemize what the Arts & Crafts movement means to Barbra: an “elegant” barn, a silo with a circular staircase, a silo with a napping room, a lap pool, a koi-stocked pond, the cottage where grandmother lived in Little Red Riding Hood (I am not making that up), a mill house with a working water wheel, and the storm cellar from The Wizard of Oz. And all these handmade. So, in summary: Barbra Streisand will not return your e-mails, and, as the post also says, she fires architects who cannot build an exact replica of Auntie Em’s storm cellar with their bare hands.
You are now equipped to visit “Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement” (also a ghostly memory of the late Wardie Davis’ house in Marshallberg N.C., and a simulacrum of Barbra Streisand’s brain) running at the DMA through May 8. This Friday’s Late Night at the DMA features the lecture “Romancing the Bungalow: Getting to Know Your Arts and Crafts Home” by the show’s curator, the DMA’s own Kevin Tucker.