The Devil is in the Details

Inlay Designs by Harvey Ellis


This early writing desk features intricate inlays of both wood and metal, manufactured by Gustav Stickley’s marquetry supplier, George H. Jones. Author Kevin Tucker discusses the inlay designs in depth in Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement. The trident-like elongated floral motifs are evidently influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as seen on his linen press in the collection of National Museums Liverpool. Mackintosh, with his unique and innovative designs, paved the way of the Arts & Crafts design movement in the late 19th century. As such, many American Arts & Crafts makers often used derivative or similar themes and motifs based on Mackintosh’s works.

Linen press by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (photo courtesy of National Museums Liverpool); Detail image, linen press by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (photo courtesy of National Museums Liverpool)

Interwoven with the pewter inlays are fruitwood roundels of a sailing Viking ship. Harvey Ellis and his associate Claude Bradgon utilized various Viking ship motifs in their works. Leading into the early 20th century, there had been a renewed interest and fascination surrounding Norse cultures in the United Kingdom, partly due to the frequent excavations of Viking ships that were happening in the nearby seas. Subsequently, this trend reached America across the Atlantic and Viking motifs were widely incorporated in the decorative art designs of the period.

Gustav Stickley

Gustav Stickley, whose name is synonymous with Craftsman furniture, was a visionary American proponent for the Arts and Crafts philosophy in design, literature, and life. At the peak of his career, his furniture was sold throughout the country, Craftsman houses built in many areas, and The Craftsman magazine widely read. After bankruptcy in 1915, Stickley was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when his importance as a designer was rediscovered by a new generation.

The eldest son of first generation German immigrants, Stickley was born into a family that owned furniture-manufacturing businesses. He found inspiration in the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris and the well-built, hand-crafted furniture and the brotherhood of honest labor they espoused. In 1898 he established the Gustav Stickley Company in Eastwood, a suburb of Syracuse, New York. He adopted a William Morris motto, "Als ik kan" ("If I can") and used the symbol of a medieval joiner’s compass as his trademark.

Stickley’s furniture was a radical departure from the American furniture of the Victorian era. Surfaces were unadorned, mortise and tenon joinery and wood grain exposed. The hammered metal hardware underscored the artisanal look of furniture, which was fabricated both by hand and by contemporary woodworking machines.