The Collection: Living Room

We’re in the living room now for this week’s highlighted piece, the #2341 Morris chair. Don’t forget, you can look at the other pieces in the living room, or see all the featured pieces in our virtual tour.

#2341 Morris chair
Dimensions: 30 1/2″ W x 37 1/2″ H x 33 1/2″ D
Materials: Oak and leather, with round-headed brass tacks
Date: Ca. 1901 – 1905
Designer: Attributed to Henry Wilkinson
Gift by Dr. Donald Davidoff and Sue Tarlow to The Craftsman Farms Foundation.

Though Stickley manufactured Morris chairs – the term “Morris” chair evoked the hinged-back armchairs Morris & Company had long been making in England – he sold them using his own terminology. Craftsman catalogs offered “adjustable-back” chairs and “reclining” chairs, but not “Morris” chairs, though that is the popular usage that continues to this day.

Promotional copy for Craftsman Morris chairs often showed them in a domestic, familial light. They were a place of refuge where the tired businessman, surrounded by his family, could find tranquility at the end of his stress-filled day. A March 1907 Craftsman magazine advertisement, however, depicted a spindle-sided Stickley Morris chair and, in something of a departure, the accompanying text said little about its domestic virtues. Instead, it made the point that the chair’s plainness, sturdiness, and candid construction exemplified not only the firm’s honest furniture-making practices but also embodied a set of moral beliefs that were a reliable guide to life. As the advertisement said: “The fundamental purpose of building this chair was to make a piece which should be essentially comfortable, durable, well proportioned and as soundly put together as the best workmanship, tools and materials make possible. What more should a chair be? What more can it be and retain dignity and character? The Craftsman idea is … honest, straightforward … and this is true whether in the making of furniture, the planning of a house, or the entire field of life and work.”

And yet despite his firm’s insistence that the Craftsman Morris chair was both a source of homely comfort and a symbol of personal integrity, Stickley, as the writer Bruce Johnson has observed, evidently had only one Morris chair in the log house at Craftsman Farms. Though the Craftsman Morris chair has achieved iconic status today, Stickley is likely to have seen it simply as one of many items in his product line, perhaps choosing a #2341 chair because his factory or retail store had one handy.

Though present-day opinion tends to view this chair as one of Stickley’s lesser Morris chair designs, it has a rakish profile and the appearance of light-weight tensile strength that is visually very appealing. Stickley first cataloged this chair in a set of “retail plates” evidently issued some time between January and June 1901. On the evidence of those “retail plates,” this chair and the highly regarded “bow arm” were the first Morris chairs made by his firm. The #2341 does not appear in the catalog “Chips from the Workshops of Gustave Stickley,” issued about January 1901, but a photograph of this model does appear in “Chips from the Workshops of the United Crafts,” issued that June, thus fixing the date of its introduction to the first half of 1901.

There are two prominent elements of its design – the corbels and the arms – which identify it of as that vintage. Like many other 1901 Stickley pieces, the chair has elongated curved corbels – in this instance beneath its arms – that strengthen the frame and visually evoke a stylized Gothic arch; this is a Stickley motif that has come to be associated with his designer Henry Wilkinson. Interestingly, these corbels are on axis with the chair’s arms and are visible only from the sides; corbels on other Stickley Morris chairs stand at right angles to the arms and can be seen from the front and back. The shapely arms also assign this design its 1901 date. Seen in plan view – from directly overhead – the arms’ front edges form a compact, flattened “V,” and their outer edges are cut into an elongated V-form reminiscent of a Tudor arch.

The chair’s most striking visual feature is the suspended rectangle of what Stickley called “heavy saddlery leather.” It wraps around the front and back seat rails and supports the loose, separate seat cushion. Expressing the Arts and Crafts ideal of “the beautiful necessity,” this leather seat support creates visual enrichment from a functional – and usually concealed – chair component. The colors and textures of this leather are eye-pleasing features by themselves, and they contrast nicely with the chair’s wooden surfaces. This leather is fastened to the seat rails with rows of oversize, round-headed tacks that add their own color and sheen to the chair and catch any shift of light. They also visually harmonize the chair with its immediate neighbors at the south end of the living room: the leather top of the adjacent hexagonal table is edged with similar rows of round-headed tacks, and the rivets joining the fireplace hood have the same round-headed shape. Given his embrace of design unity, these correspondences must have been a conscious gesture made by Stickley as he arranged the furnishings of this room.

The #2341 is an immensely appealing chair, more complex than a casual glance might suggest, and worth the time to study and take pleasure from. Stickley’s firm was still manufacturing it in 1910. But the later chairs lacked the visually arresting leather seat support (it was replaced by a more prosaic drop-in spring cushion) and there were now three vertical slats beneath the arms in place of the original two. These added slats probably made the chair more structurally sound, but this later iteration lacked the verve of the #2341 chair as Stickley’s designers had first conceived it in 1901.

Next week, we’ll be looking at the #410 L Hexagonal Library Table, which is next to the Morris chair in the living room.

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