I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk about collecting Arts and Crafts furniture with one of the great experts–Stephen Gray. Stephen has been collecting since 1976 and has published and edited many books on the topic, and his collection was featured in a show at The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.
Stephen’s collecting story began in the mid-1970s when he bought a turn of the (20th) century farmhouse in Columbia County, New York and decided to furnish it consistent with the house’s construction period. In college he had studied architecture and ultimately was drawn to the rectilinear, organic, and durable nature of Arts and Crafts furniture. As his tastes evolved he was further drawn to the experimental, earlier works of Gustav Stickley, and this is where he focused his collecting efforts. Throughout my conversations with Stephen five central themes evolved as the keys to his success in building his exceptional Arts and Crafts furniture collection. In this post, I’ll share those themes with you.
Set a Goal:
The first theme, and perhaps the most obvious, is to set a goal (although I find myself still unable to explain mine). Determine what or who or perhaps which period that you wish to specialize in to focus your collecting. Stephen was drawn to the earlier works of Gustav Stickley because of the experimental nature of the designs, the absence of restraint in using building materials (e.g., big, bold lines and the thickness of the tops of through tenons), and the designs’ ability to blend into his home. So, whether you settle on Gustav Stickley or Charles Limbert, Morris chairs, or furniture made in Western New York or Michigan as your goal, decide on a goal, because having one will serve you well while you put the remaining themes into practice.
Have Great Knowledge of What You’re Collecting:
Extremes are authorized in this theme, because you can never have too much knowledge of what you’re collecting. For example, if your goal focuses on a specific designer or manufacturer (e.g., Greene and Greene or Lifetime) you will need to develop expertise in many areas. Being able to identify designs (and design features), being aware of how many pieces were built, knowing the market value of your collecting targets, and being able to identify repaired, authentic, and forged pieces are critical to your collecting success. But how do you develop this expertise? Stephen suggests reading auction catalogs, books and catalogs that accompany museum or gallery exhibits, and any books or scholarly research available. Since Stephen’s area of interest is Gustav Stickley, he highly recommends David Gather’s book Gustav Stickley as an excellent source of information on all facets of Stickley’s work. Even if your goal is not to focus on Stickley Stephen points out that this book is a good example of the level of expertise needed.