IN THE 1890's and into the first decades of the 20th Century, most American furniture makers favored European models of the most elaborate kind. John Henry Belter's laminated imitations of French Second Empire were wildly popular. But from the vantage point of the 1980s, they're completely tasteless.
Far more appealing to the modern idea of spare and simple design is American arts and crafts furniture (also known as Mission or Craftsman furniture). While elaborate Victorian and imitation European furniture continued to be manufactured in quantity during the last years of the 19th Century, arts and crafts furniture began to achieve acceptance by the time of World War I. Its simple design and craftsmanship, of course, was influenced by the European arts and crafts movement.
In both Europe and the United States, this movement was a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and everything it represented. In England, painters such as William Morris and art critics such as John Ruskin encouraged handmade products as a replacement for mass-produced fabrics, wallpaper and ceramics.
One talented American furniture designer who welcomed these theories was Gustav Stickley of Syracuse, N.Y. The furniture he made was linear and unpretentious, constructed by hand with local materials, usually oak: simple dining-room sideboards, unadorned chairs, functional desks, all quite different from the usual fussy Victorian furniture. Stickley's furniture imitated nothing, though it turned out that he was much imitated by the big Grand Rapids manufacturers.
By 1901, Stickley's designs had come to the attention of two California architects, the brothers Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene. In the years to come they provided both the architecture and the interior design for 137 houses, of which 75 remain. Their work, though it had its own individual genius, was heavily influenced by Stickley and the arts and crafts movement. Their furniture was reserved for their architectural clients, but the principles were the same: elegant form, exquisite craftsmanship, handwork and, above all, simplicity of design.
Today authentic Stickley furniture is expensive and is likely to be found mostly in the East and the Midwest, while Greene & Greene furniture, made primarily for specific houses and individual clients, is rare and even more expensive. However, some pieces are available from time to time, and furniture of the same general type was made by Peter and John Hall (who built most of the Greene & Greene furniture) and by Louis B. Easton and Harold Doolittle. Such furniture is wonderfully evocative of early California and is rich with the flavor of turn-of-the-century Pasadena and Berkeley.
A good introduction to the arts and crafts movement, particularly as it appeared in California, is to visit the Gamble House, designed inside and out by Greene & Greene. It is now a museum, located at 4 Westmoreland Place, Pasadena. Some shops that specialize in arts and crafts furniture are Couturier Gallery and Buddy's, both in Los Angeles, and Jack Moore Arts and Crafts, James/Randell (reproductions), El Adobe (by appointment only), all in Pasadena.