Vonda K. Givens Executive Director
Kristen McCauley, Senior Manager of Education and Interpretation
Maeve Forde, Visitor Services Associate
March 9 will mark 160 years since Gustav Stickley’s birth. To celebrate, it would be easy to write about Gustav Stickley’s significance in years past. We tell that story every day at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, but as I started to write, I wondered if this article could focus on the future instead. What about Stickley’s significance in years to come? What will he mean to future generations?
Since sharing Stickley with young people—from Millennials to Generation Z (in other words, anyone born after 1982)—is often office conversation, this Generation X-er enlisted staffers (and actual young people) for help. Kristen McCauley, Senior Manager of Education and Interpretation, on staff for 7 years, and Maeve Forde, Visitor Services Associate, on staff for 10 months, are both Millennials and fervent advocates (and defenders) of their generation. Well-educated on Stickley and Arts and Crafts, they are, perhaps most importantly, confident in the museum’s ability to effectively connect with future generations. In looking ahead to 160 more years of Stickley, I’m pleased to share their insights and let them take it from here.
VG: What will attract Millennials to Stickley?
MF: When I first started learning about Gustav Stickley, I really didn’t expect to find many similarities between me and my peers and a man who was born nearly a century and a half before we were. I think most people of my generation (and probably most people in general) can’t name many furniture designers, magazine publishers, architects, or business magnates, let alone name one person who was all of those things. But the more I learn about Stickley, the more he seems to me like a pre-millennial millennial. Or, maybe my generation is a bunch of post-Stickley inadvertent Craftsman-lifestyle enthusiasts. Either way, my generation and Gustav Stickley have more in common than people might think, and that will be what draws millennials to Stickley.
One of the most impressive things about Stickley is how many different hats he wore. He engaged in many different business ventures, from furniture design to magazine publishing, to an attempt at running a school. Stickley did all that because he could and because he wanted to, and while that isn’t exactly the case for many millennials, they can still identify with having different skills and interests. Millennials grew up with the Internet and have been exposed to more knowledge at their fingertips than any previous generation by an exponential measure. Whereas Stickley had no formal architecture training, millennials grew up being able to teach themselves just about anything with the infinite resources of the Internet. Millennials can identify with Stickley in the sense that, since no job is guaranteed, there are ways to build knowledge and experience other than the traditional path.
Millennials are known for being constantly on their phones. But, they’re not just texting into the void, they’re making connections and forming communities. Gustav Stickley, throughout his career, didn’t just build furniture, he fostered a community. He was a pioneer of Arts and Crafts in America, and the style’s popularity here is at least partly due to his stewardship. He wasn’t just selling furniture, he was promoting a whole lifestyle. He wasn’t just publishing pictures of his furniture, he was spreading a message. While millennials write tweet threads that they can instantly share with the world, Stickley published his own magazine to get his ideas out there. Millennials don’t often hesitate to share pictures they like on their Instagrams, and Stickley similarly presented his ideal images through his magazine, through his company’s catalogue and through the work he did.
When a millennial learns more about Stickley and sees how drawn he was to the idea of community—the idea of sharing thoughts, ideas, and plans with like-minded people—that young person will likely see a reflection of themself or their peers. Stickley didn’t have social media like we do now, but he did have a drive to share his work and to engage with people about it. He wanted Craftsman Farms to be a community. In his editorials in The Craftsman, he speaks with warmth and familiarity to and about his readers. We know that Stickley was friendly with other Arts and Crafts artists, but he also was open to influences from other styles from other parts of the world. He effectively communicated his own ideas and cultivated a following for them in a way that rivals modern communication over social media. In fact, if Twitter was around when Stickley was alive, he probably would have been quite active in the “#ArtsAndCrafts” tag (and he probably would’ve been a fan of all the available tree emojis, too).
This connection is something that will draw millennials to Stickley as a leader and a businessman. As a craftsman, though, millennials will be drawn to Stickley’s practicality and the wonderful simplicity that comes with it. Stickley, and the Arts and Crafts movement as a whole, isn’t interested in doing or being anything for the sake of being flashy. Furniture in this style is practically designed and well made. Millennials, who came of age at a time of significant financial crisis and with significant student debt, love a good deal. Furnishings in this style not only look good, but also are built to last.
Simply put, what will draw millennials most to Stickley is all that they have in common. The way they see communication and their relationship to the world around them, though separated by a century of technological advancement, is ultimately similar. Both millennials and Stickley reach out to others to share similarly held ideas, to build communities off those connections, and to share influence. Most millennials might not be able to identify a piece of Stickley furniture when they look at it, but most millennials will appreciate the practicality and lack of ego in his work.
VG: How do you approach sharing Stickley with Generation Z?
KM: We all start out as kids. I remember my first trip to a history museum. It was Old Bethpage Village on Long Island in New York. At the time I was perhaps a little obsessed with the “Little House on the Prairie” book series, and my parents told me this place was just like the prairie the Ingalls’ family called home. That may have been a small fib to get a 7-year-old kid excited about visiting a history museum—but it worked! Although, I quickly realized Laura Ingalls left out just how hot and smelly prairie life could be.
My hometown of Milltown, NJ, had a large, mostly abandoned, 22-acre, early 20th century industrial complex comprised of 15 buildings, once home to the Michelin Tire Company—beautiful red brick buildings, green wooden doors, and the orderliness of form that I really appreciated visually. The site was deemed an eye-sore by some and an icon by others. It was fought over for literally my whole life (it was ultimately torn down just last year). I loved exploring this site as a kid, usually with my sisters on our bikes on some summer adventure in the neighborhood. Later, as a graduate student, I wrote papers about its history and got involved in some of the last-ditch efforts to save the site by adapting the buildings into housing units and retail spaces. Needless to say, it wasn’t successful.
On an 8th grade class trip to Washington DC, I was especially excited to see the Hope Diamond in the National Museum of Natural History—you see, the Hope Diamond looks a whole lot like the infamous blue diamond necklace from the film Titanic, which had come out just a year earlier and, like most tweens in the late 90s, I was a big Leo DiCaprio fan. (Still am!)
My father has always been a model-railroader and as kids he would often take my sisters and me to see other model railroader’s layouts. There’s a certain nostalgia required to enjoy model-railroading. Layouts often reflect turn-of-the-century or mid-century life with steam engines and passenger cars passing through scenes reminiscent of saccharine fictional small towns like Pleasantville, Smallville or Riverdale. Both my parents loved classic movies. I often feel like it was inevitable that I grew up to be a history nerd.
I have stories like these at regular intervals throughout my life. And if you are a history lover, museum supporter, volunteer, or fan, you probably have them too. Childhood moments like these fostered a love, respect, and interest in history, material culture, and historic places that I brought with me into adulthood. I didn’t know at the time that exploring the abandoned tire factory or sitting in a one-room-schoolhouse imagining myself as Laura Ingalls would ultimately guide my academic path and shape my career, but here we are!
Now, as the Senior Manager of Education and Interpretation, I think a lot about how a visit to the Stickley Museum can be a meaningful and memorable experience for our younger visitors. Whether they come here for a Girl Scout program, on Family Day, or for one of our regular tours, as I see it, these are all opportunities to create a new generation of history-lovers, museum-supporters, preservationists, and yes — Arts and Crafts enthusiasts. And have some fun while we’re at it!
From the very beginning, there has always been a place for children in the Craftsman movement. Stickley wrote in The Craftsman magazine that the movement “stands for the rights of the children to health and happiness, through an education that will develop hands as well as heads”(1). He envisioned Craftsman Farms as a place where young people could develop useful skills, be inspired by nature, and find some relief from the hectic pace of life during a new industrial age. The plan for his farm school was to provide a practical education as well as an academic one, to use the farm as a teaching tool in order to give his students “brains behind his fingers as well as in his head”(2). Our goals today are not entirely dissimilar. We want the museum experience to be fun and engaging, encourage thinking, wondering, and questioning. It should also be an interactive experience with opportunities for hands-on learning.
Gen Z is generally defined as kids born after 1998. Today’s kids have always known technology—they’ve grown up with internet and smart phones, smart boards at school, and online video tutorials for just-about-anything—they are great multi-taskers, and they are more likely than previous generations to follow non-traditional paths in life, thanks in part to seeing older generations struggle economically during and after the recession. This generation is huge and hugely diverse. They are our future. And they’re paying attention. If recent current events are any indication, they are not content with the status quo. They are challenging norms wherever they go.
About seven or eight years old is when children first develop a sense of the past and an understanding of chronological time—past, present, future. This is why so often those first meaningful museum experiences, like my own at Bethpage, happen around this age. If we are successful in engaging these young visitors at this pivotal time, I believe we can make a significant impact that will benefit the individual child, as well as the collective future of the Arts and Crafts movement. When a kid comes to the museum, they don’t know why they should care about this person, this place, and what happened here. So what will make a museum visit meaningful and memorable for them? I think it boils down to connection. So we ask questions that focus looking, stimulate thinking, and structure an exploration of the physical space to help kids make connections between their world and Mr. Stickley’s world.
For example, our programs for Girl Scouts (kids that range in age from 7 to 14 years) focus on hands-on activities like embroidery, bookmaking or pottery. For many of these kids, it is the first time they get to hold clay in their hands or thread a needle. We talk about how Mr. Stickley was part of a group of designers and craftspeople who valued making things by hand; how the time and effort that go into making a thing by hand adds to the thing’s value, both sentimental and monetary. Then—and this is important—they get to do the thing—make the pinch pot, embroider the sampler, bind the book, dial the rotary phone, etc. It is well established that we retain more information (about 75%) by doing a thing, versus just reading (10%) or hearing about it (20%). Most of us can’t become a skilled potter just by reading about it. So every time I overhear a young girl, on her way out of a workshop, whisper to a friend that she has plans for a book series or ask a parent if she can go to the craft store for more embroidery thread so she can keep cross-stitching, I’m elated! Our goal is for kids to leave feeling proud in what they accomplished here and inspired and motivated for what comes beyond. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see some of these kids exhibiting at the Grove Park Inn (National Arts & Crafts Conference) some day!
We live a technology filled world. “We accept without conscious wonder the mechanical and scientific miracles which are part of the fabric of our daily life; but are aroused to incredulous interest when reminded that all of this is relatively a mushroom growth, a palace of marvels raised by the genii in a single night”(3). Even Stickley, in his own time, worried about the speed with which technology was evolving: “We have taught the sunlight to reproduce our features upon paper, steam to haul us swiftly and smoothly across continents and oceans, and electricity to turn night into day for us and to carry our messages to the ends of the earth in the twinkling of an eye”(4). Through our programming, I think one of the most valuable things the museum does for our visitors, both young and young-at-heart, in today’s world of constant distractions is: we make time. With the myriad of devices, services, conveniences competing for our time, it can seem like there is no time to slow down, but we can do that. We can carve out time. We can give you a reason to slow down.
Every adult today who values quality craftsmanship and good design, who respects history and historic places, was once a curious seven-year-old too. It makes me wonder, what are the experiences that made you an Arts and Crafts enthusiast?
Join our celebration! Make a donation in honor of Gustav Stickley and insure that his historic home, Craftsman Farms, is here for future generations.
1. Stickley, Gustav. “The Craftsman Movement: Its Origin and Growth.” The Craftsman Vol. XXV, Number 1 (October 1913). Page 18.
2. “A Visit to Craftsman Farms: The Study of an Educational Ideal.” The Craftsman Vol. XVIII, Number 6 (September 1910). Page 642
3. Roberts, W. Carman. “Are we becoming “civilized” too rapidly.” The Craftsman Vol. XVII, Number 4 (January 1910). Page 355.
4. Roberts, W. Carman. “Are we becoming “civilized” too rapidly.” The Craftsman Vol. XVII, Number 4 (January 1910). Page 355.