December 16, 2012

MODERN ART & DESIGN AUCTION

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Lot 112: Harvey Ellis

Lot 112: Harvey Ellis

Rare inlaid armchair

Designed c. 1903
Oak, pewter, exotic inlaid woods
Gustav Stickley's Craftsman Workshop, Eastwood, NY
Retains red decal for manufacture 1902-04
47" x 22.25" x 18.5"
Sold by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to benefit future acquisitions
Provenance: Robert Winter, California; Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Literature: Volpe, Tod M., and Beth Cathers. Treasures of the American Arts and Crafts Movement: 1890-1920. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988. p 36 (example with variant inlay in the collection of Carnegie Museum of Art illustrated).
Estimate: $10,000 - $15,000
Price Realized: $17,500
Inventory Id: 4019

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In a 1901 issue of his Craftsman magazine, Gustav Stickley (1858-1942) outlined the design principles that guided him in producing his pioneering Craftsman furniture: “Do away with all needless ornamentation, returning to plain principles of construction and applying them to the making of simple, strong, comfortable furniture.” This was published just three years after his trip to England and Europe, where he finally experienced firsthand the designs of English Arts and Crafts furniture and European Art Nouveau. Stickley had already been producing well-crafted, albeit unremarkable furniture for two decades, but it wasn’t until 1898 that he began the experiments that would lead to his distinctive Craftsman style. His early chairs and tables – results of these experiments – gained immediate praise in trade publications throughout the country, including editorials and advertisements in House Beautiful. Based in Syracuse, New York, Stickley’s factory and offices became the vanguard of the American Craftsman movement, which demonstrated honest construction, respect for materials, and a guild union similar to those of medieval workshops.

By 1903, Stickley had established an influential publication by which he shared his philosophy of “mutual cooperation as a way of life and simplicity as a goal of that style,” and he was continually achieving this intention with his Craftsman furniture guild. The brief but extremely influential tenure of architect Harvey Ellis (1852-1904), however, forever altered the designs of Stickley. Roaming from city to city, contributing designs to multiple firms, Ellis never achieved prominence as an architect. Some historians refer to him as a “paper architect,” one whose designs were never constructed, though it is likely that based on his skillful drawings and admiration from colleagues, some of his designs were probably built. Ellis arrived at the Syracuse workshop when Stickley was just finishing up the renovations to his fire-damaged house, considered to be the first Craftsman structure. Most likely hired as an architect to work with Stickley, who was becoming increasingly interested in translating his Craftsman aesthetic to architecture, in seven months Ellis designed houses, wall decorations, illustrations for The Craftsman, and furniture. According to Stickley historian, Mary Ann Smith, “Ellis’ real contribution, aside from his designs for Stickley, was to be the inspiration he provided at a critical point in Stickley’s development.”

While almost every issue of The Craftsman during Ellis’ employment featured illustrations and an Ellis blueprint, none of his buildings were constructed. The same cannot be said for his furniture, which continued to influence Stickley after Ellis’ untimely death. His chairs and cabinets are marked by lightness previously unseen in Stickley pieces. The slats are thinner, the top and seat rails have curves, and metal inlays prominently adorn the center of the backrest. Stickley never used unnecessary ornamentation, but he most likely approved of the inlays – as seen in the side chair and rare inlaid armchair from 1903 – because of his appreciation of medieval imagery, which in the case of Ellis furniture, “emphasized the structure of the designs.” Ellis’ double-door bookcase (1903) evokes a distinctly architectural presence with overhanging tops and an arching skirt, likely inspired by Charles Rennie Mackintosh from the Glasgow School. When Stickley’s post-Ellis designs are compared to his pre-Ellis counterparts, it is clear that even after the architect’s death, Stickley employed curvature and lightness in many of his pieces. Harvey Ellis was the catalyst for a progressive change toward imaginative design possibilities that endured for the remainder of Gustav Stickley’s career.

Smith, Mary Ann. Gustav Stickley: The Craftsman. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1983. Print.

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