One of eleven children of German émigrés Leopold and Barbara Schlager Stoeckel, Gustav Stickley was born Gustavus Stoeckel on March 9, 1858, in Osceola, Wisconsin. The eldest surviving son, Stickley experienced the rigors of life upon a small Midwestern farm, forgoing his formal education in 1870 to continue work in his father’s field of stonemasonry and help support his struggling family. By early 1876, Stickley’s mother and siblings moved to Brandt, Pennsylvania, where Gustav worked in his uncle’s chair factory – his first formal training in the furniture industry.
With his brothers Charles and Albert, Gustav formed Stickley Brothers & Company in 1883, the same year in which he married Eda Ann Simmons. Within five years, the company was dissolved and Stickley’s ambitions led him to partner with Elgin Simonds, a salesman in the furniture trade, to form the firm of Stickley & Simonds in Binghamton, New York. During the 1890s, Stickley divided his efforts between his new enterprise and, with his brother Leopold, served as a foreman of furniture operations at the Auburn State Prison. In 1898 he orchestrated the removal of his business partner and formed the Gustave Stickley Company (he dropped the use of the "e" in 1903).
In the summer of 1900 he worked with Henry Wilkinson and, possibly, LaMont A. Warner (soon his first staff designer) to create his first Arts and Crafts works in an experimental line called the New Furniture. In 1901 he changed the name of his firm to the United Crafts, issued a new catalogue written by Syracuse professor Irene Sargent, and began to offer middle class consumers a host of progressive furniture designs in ammonia-fumed quartersawn white oak, as well as other mostly native woods. In October 1901, Stickley published the first issue of The Craftsman magazine, an important vehicle for promoting Arts and Crafts philosophy as well as the products of his factory within the context of articles, reviews, and advertisements for a range of products of interest to the homemaker. The magazine also featured articles by libertarian socialists.
Stickley's new furniture reflected his ideals of simplicity, honesty in construction, and truth to materials. Unadorned, plain surfaces were enlivened by the careful application of colorants so as not to obscure the grain of the wood and mortise and tenon joinery was exposed to emphasize the structural qualities of the works. Hammered metal hardware, in armor-bright polished iron or patinated copper emphasized the handmade qualities of furniture which was fabricated using both handworking techniques and modern woodworking machinery within Stickley's Eastwood, New York, factory (now a part of Syracuse, New York). Dyed leather, canvas, terry cloth and other upholstery materials complemented the designs.
Those ideals - simplicity, honesty, truth - were reflected in his trademark, which includes the Flemish phrase Als Ik Kan inside a joiner's compass. The phrase is generally translated 'to the best of my ability.'
His firm's work, both nostalgic in its evocation of handicraft and the pre-industrial era and proto-modern in its functional simplicity, was popularly referred to as being in the Mission style, though Stickley despised the term as misleading. In 1903 he changed the name of his company again, to the Craftsman Workshops, and began a concerted effort to market his works — by then including furniture as well as textiles, lighting, and metalwork — as Craftsman products. Ultimately, over 100 retailers across the United States represented the Craftsman Workshops.
In 1902, the later world-renowned sculptor Jerome Connor was hired to head up Stickley's metal work department. In May 1903 Stickley hired Rochester architect Harvey Ellis. Although Ellis died only a few months later, in January 1904, he had an immediate and profound effect upon design of The Craftsman magazine, its architectural offerings, and the furnishings Stickley was producing, reinforcing the connections between Stickley's work and that of English and Glaswegian designers. During this year Stickley's furniture evolved from solid, monumental forms to lighter shapes, relieved by arches, tapering legs, and — in a new experimental line — inlay as decoration. Within a year the inlay designs would be all but dropped from production save special orders, but the broader emphasis on less massive forms would remain. In keeping with this new emphasis, Stickley also began offering furniture in willow to complement the heavier oak designs. Furthering the development of his concept of the Craftsman home, in late 1903 he announced the formation of the Craftsman Home Builders Club to provide architectural plans from The Craftsman to its subscribers. The homes were offered in a number of archetypes familiar to American public — the farmhouse, town house, cottage, and bungalow, among others. Natural materials and soft colors predominated and interiors were invariably prescribed to include simplified moldings, stained wood, and characteristic features such as built-in cabinets and fireplaces with inglenooks for seating. Although these homes were only rarely innovative in terms of progressive style, designs reflected current approaches to open floor plans, economy of function, and use of novel materials for walls, roofs, and surface treatments.
Stickley moved his headquarters to New York City in 1905 and by 1907 began to acquire property to establish a boarding school for boys in Morris Plains, New Jersey (what is now Parsippany, New Jersey). Craftsman Farms was designed to include vegetable gardens, orchards, dairy cows and chickens. The main house there is constructed from chestnut logs and stone found on the property. As he wrote in The Craftsman:
There are elements of intrinsic beauty in the simplification of a house built on the log cabin idea. First, there is the bare beauty of the logs themselves with their long lines and firm curves. Then there is the open charm felt of the structural features which are not hidden under plaster and ornament, but are clearly revealed, a charm felt in Japanese architecture....The quiet rhythmic monotone of the wall of logs fills one with the rustic peace of a secluded nook in the woods.
Although the main house at Craftsman Farms was initially conceived of as a clubhouse for students, lack of interest in the school prompted Stickley to live there with his family instead. The planned school never became a reality. By 1913, changing tastes and the financial strain of his new twelve-story Craftsman Building in Manhattan, conceived as a department store, began to take their toll; in 1915 he filed for bankruptcy, stopping publication of The Craftsman in December 1916 and selling Craftsman Farms in 1917.
Gustav Stickley died on April 21, 1942. He is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York.
In recent decades, Stickley and his work have become popularly recognized once again. It is particularly his early furniture, produced between 1901 and 1904 that is considered rare and extremely collectible. In 1988, Barbra Streisand paid $363,000 for a Stickley sideboard from the Gustav Stickley House in Syracuse; magazines such as Style 1900 (out of print as of January 2013) and American Bungalow cater to those interested in the Arts and Crafts movement. A major touring exhibition organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement, opened at the Newark Museum on September 15, 2010. The exhibition then opened at the Dallas Museum of Art on February 18, 2011 and remained on view until May 8, 2011 before opening at the San Diego Museum of Art on June 18, 2011, subsequently closing on September 11, 2011.
Gustav's brothers Leopold Stickley (Lee), Albert Stickley, Charles Stickley and John George Stickley also produced Arts and Crafts furniture. Although no longer held by the Stickley family, the successor firm to the L. & J.G. Stickley Company continues to operate in Manlius, New York, producing furniture in a variety of styles, including reproductions of Arts and Crafts designs. The Stickley-Audi Company operates a museum featuring the work of the Stickley brothers near its factory site.