Encouraging the Spirit of Craftsmanship

One hundred years ago, the Arts and Crafts movement was the dominant trend in home design in America. This philosophy of craftsmanship originated in England in the mid-19th century under the leadership of theorists such as John Ruskin and especially the brilliant William Morris, who achieved success as a poet, artist, publisher, social critic, textile designer and interior decorator.

Morris rebelled against both the overly fussy decorations of conventional Victorian design and the mind-numbing labor of the mass production furniture factories of the early industrial revolution. Inspired by the honest simplicity of medieval designs, he taught that every artist should be a craftsman and every craftsman an artist. Pride in work well designed and well done was seen as essential to human dignity.

In the U.S., the movement was promoted by Elbert Hubbard's utopian Roycroft community, and by the brilliant furniture manufacturer Gustav Stickley. In the late 19th century, most American furniture was overly ornate, covered with fancy but useless decorative details. By 1904, within a few months of the Wright Brothers' first airplane flight, a new modernism dominated the furniture industry. Stickley's original designs, and those of his countless imitators, put forward straightforward, honest, rectilinear shapes, relying on the beautiful patterns of quartersawn white oak as their primary decorative element. Later, a brilliant designer employed by Stickley, Harvey Ellis, embellished Craftsman furniture with elegant and subtle inlays that still impress with their beauty. Tragically, Ellis died very young.

Until the onset of World War I, Stickley's magazine, The Craftsman, was the most influential voice shaping the modern American home. It promoted affordable, well-designed bungalows for middle-class families. Home architecture, furniture, carpets, textiles, lighting fixtures, pottery, copper work and paintings all fell under the sway of Stickley's vision. As well as propounding a consistent design philosophy, he also insisted on the highest quality standards of physical craftsmanship. His furniture companies, along with those owned by his brothers, achieved enormous success. Even today, furniture made in his shops 100 years ago commands sky-high prices at antique auctions.

Although the Craftsman design philosophy faded from prominence after 15 years of great success, the ideals of that movement appeal greatly to me, and offer certain lessons to custom countertop fabricators of the 21st century. One of the things that I like best about countertop fabrication is that it remains one of the few holdouts in our economy against the complete dominance of mass production.

Don't get me wrong. I am certain that mass production has brought great prosperity to billions of people in the past 200 years. However, I am comforted that a few things are still made and installed to order and to individual customer taste. Among them are custom countertops.

Custom Made
By its very nature, custom fabrication requires, on average, a higher degree of worker skill and versatility than does mass production. Regular readers of this column know that I am obsessed with quality control. Consumers expect and pay for the highest levels of quality and long-term performance from custom-made products. If a worker has the mentality that it's "just a job," that exceptional quality is "not my job" and is motivated only by the next paycheck, then the standards of quality are bound to suffer. A worker who is motivated by pride in craft, by love of materials and tools and techniques, as well as by the prospect of financial gain, will invariably produce and install a top-quality countertop.

I've achieved that level of motivation in my own career through self-employment. In my younger years, I've been an employee working under heavy-handed bosses, and I've been a supervisor dealing with incompetent or unmotivated subordinates. Leaving both roles behind has been a personal step forward for me, but I know that career path is not practical for most people.

A challenge facing leaders in many industries is how to encourage the very best from their employees. I can't claim to have a simple answer. However, it seems clear that those who are proud of their work do far better work than those who dislike it.

Here's how Gustav Stickley described his own approach to worker development: "The raising of the general intelligence of the worker, by the increase of his leisure and the multiplication of his means of pleasure and culture, the endeavor to substitute the luxury of taste for the luxury of costliness, and to do something along the Morris idea that all men shall have work to do which shall be worth doing, and be pleased to do it."

Stickley experimented with profit sharing in addition to wages as a way to better motivate his workers. He attempted to recreate the medieval guild structure, where a master craftsman served as a sort of mentor to younger workers. He found these techniques successful when his companies were small, but less so when he had hundreds of employees. Perhaps the growth of his enterprises was too rapid. In any event, it is clear that Stickley did not find the true key to success in worker motivation since his successful business empire declined and failed by 1916.

For over half a century, Stickley's designs were ignored and his ideals largely forgotten. Recent decades, though, have seen a resurgence of interest in Craftsman design and philosophy. Magazines such as Style 1900 and American Bungalow are devoted to the movement, as are dozens of lavishly illustrated books.

Celebrating Style
Twenty years of hard work with custom countertops have allowed my wife and me to move to a beautiful new home in the Napa Valley. On our way back to California from a trip to the Adirondacks last winter, we came across a Stickley Furniture showroom in Albany, New York. We learned that items of furniture originally made by Gustav Stickley and his brothers, L. Stickley & J.G. Stickley, and also some pieces designed by Harvey Ellis and the Roycroft community, are still being made in Manlius, New York.

We later purchased four pieces of the furniture and a gorgeous Stickley oriental rug. The furniture was made to order and delivered promptly to our new home, and we are delighted with it.

And, in the spirit of craftsmanship, my wife and I and our sons are making new DuPont Corian countertops for our new kitchen. It seems that a philosophy of 100 years ago, though once forgotten, can still motivate and inspire today.

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