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Home > A Craftsman's Home Furnishings

Pardon me for saying this, but I never expected to enjoy “At Home With Gustav Stickley” so much. Subtitled “Arts and Crafts From the Stephen Gray Collection,” this carefully organized and thoroughly engrossing show at the Wadsworth Atheneum spotlights domestic items — furniture, pottery, prints and light fixtures — associated with the short-lived late 19th- and early-20th-century American Arts and Crafts movement.

Part of what makes the show special is its story. In 1976 Stephen Gray bought a farmhouse in upstate New York as a weekend home. He chose to redecorate in the Arts and Crafts style and soon after began collecting rare, early pieces of furniture made by the movement's pivotal figure, Gustav Stickley, along with pottery, metalwork, lamps and works on paper that reflected the overall aesthetic promoted by Mr. Stickley and others.

Mr. Gray's pastime became an obsession, resulting, three decades later, in one of the finest private collections of American Arts and Crafts objects. Much of the collection is on loan to the Wadsworth exhibition, complemented by some related works from the museum's holdings. The displays are grouped together in rooms reflecting the way they are used in Mr. Gray's home.

Like its British counterpart, the American Arts and Crafts movement is something of a paradox. In opposition to industrial mass-manufacturing it espoused a return to well-designed, affordable, handmade everyday objects using natural materials. Though it took inspiration from the past, the movement pioneered a simple, no-frills style that anticipated modernism. It looked forward and backward at the same time.

Mr. Stickley (1858-1942), more than anyone else, helped establish the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Born in upstate New York to German émigré parents, he traveled to England in the 1890s, where he saw and admired the work of British Arts and Crafts designers. He returned to the United States and in 1898 founded his own furniture-making company in Syracuse, producing unadorned, handmade rectilinear furniture.

Many examples of his furniture are on display throughout the show, beginning in an opening room dedicated to objects from the living room in Mr. Gray's home. Mr. Stickley's indebtedness to European art nouveau designers is revealed in several of the early pieces, like the circa 1901 poppy table, a round two-tier table with a floral-style carving on top and lower shelf, the legs shaped in a plant motif. It is more decorative than functional.

But other pieces are very modern in appearance. A rare, early Chalet table, also from around 1901, is simple, functional and sturdy, consisting of little more than a round tabletop supported by three flat, wide legs. The design is so forthright and severely plain that it is hard to believe it was conceived at the turn of the 20th century, a full two decades before modernism began seriously filtering into American art and design.

Though best known as a furniture designer, Mr. Stickley was also a businessman who, often in collaboration with other designers, made lamps, ceiling lights, metalwork and other kinds of interior furnishings. There is a good selection of these accessories shown here, along with contemporary paintings, prints and watercolors similar to those that might once have been displayed in period rooms of this kind.

One room is devoted to dining room objects and accessories, highlights of which include a dining table and chairs, a sideboard and china cabinet, all designed by Mr. Stickley around 1901. Like the Chalet table, they embody the perfectly proportioned, clean-lined and unadorned design he espoused, and a truth to materials and honest construction. Most of these pieces are made without nails or screws.

This room includes examples of Teco Pottery, an art pottery line inaugurated in 1902 in Terracotta, Ill., near Chicago. Generally designed by architects associated with the Prairie School, Teco's shapes are characterized by strong vertical designs (the pots sometimes resembling skyscrapers), buttressed arms and no painted decoration beyond a high-quality, silvery-green matte glaze. They are absolutely spectacular.

The final two rooms compress a variety of Arts and Crafts objects associated with bedroom and living areas, though as in the earlier rooms it is usually the furniture that catches your eye. Among the stand-outs is Mr. Stickley's classic armchair, the “Bow Arm Morris Chair” (circa 1901), based on a type of reclining chair introduced in 1866 in England by William Morris, the doyen of the British Arts and Crafts movement.

The “Bow Arm Morris Chair” was one of Mr. Stickley's most popular furniture designs and sold well. But ultimately the public turned its back on the beautifully simple furniture and domestic accessories that he produced, preferring the decorative flourishes of Colonial Revival styles. In 1915 Mr. Stickley filed for bankruptcy, bringing to an end a wonderful if short-lived experiment in American decorative arts and design.

“At Home With Gustav Stickley: Arts and Crafts From the Stephen Gray Collection,” Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, through Jan. 4. Information: (860)278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org.