Gustav Stickley, the furniture manufacturer and spirited salesman who helped translate the European Arts and Crafts movement for American homes, had definite ideas about dining rooms.
Like his fellow Arts & Crafts practitioners, Stickley had little patience for the fussy, ornate table settings and baroque food that Fannie Farmer's contemporaries equated with good taste. He envisioned eating areas where craftsmanship and culinary simplicity were celebrated, where a do-it-yourself ethic prevailed over imported luxury. Years before millennial gourmands were shedding French trappings and embracing locavorism, Stickley endorsed a family-centered, farm-to-table philosophy -- and designed a dining room to showcase it.
That model dining room, which made its debut at a 1903 Arts & Crafts Exhibition in Syracuse, has been meticulously recreated for a new Dallas Museum of Art exhibit opening this weekend. Billed as "the first comprehensive examination" of Stickley's life and work, Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement features more than 100 works, many of them with edible implications.
But Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design Kevin W. Tucker, who organized and curated the exhibit, says the dining room provides the clearest picture of Stickley's influence on the way Americans eat.
"He orchestrated the layout of that room, so here we have what he perceived," Tucker says. "In that regard, it's very exciting. Visitors can walk in and see something beyond a singular chair."
Attendees at the 1903 show -- sponsored by Stickley's company, United Crafts -- were likely familiar with the tenets of Arts & Crafts design, and considered Stickley's chairs and sideboards more stylish than shocking. Still, the dining room generated a fair amount of buzz.
"One of [the] features which called forth the most spontaneous admiration was the dining room furnished and arranged by the United Crafts," wrote the editor of The Craftsman, a magazine Stickley published to spread the Arts & Crafts gospel.
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No food was served in the model dining room, but Stickley did feed customers at his Craftsman Building in New York City, a 12-story emporium of Arts & Crafts goods. (As Tucker points out, Stickley supported the notion of homespun, but was happy to sell to folks who didn't want to bother making their own furniture, textiles and metalwork from scratch.) The store housed a restaurant for hungry shoppers.
"This restaurant was in part supplied with milk, water and vegetables from Craftsman Farms," Tucker says. "You'd go shopping and then go upstairs and partake of a salad or a flank steak."
The menu was composed of "plain, sturdy dishes," a few of which may soon be reinterpreted for the Dallas Museum of Art's Atrium Café.
"We've been looking at the original recipes," Tucker says.