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FALL HOME DESIGN : Craftsman Then & Now : A resurgence of this century-old style creates a new generation of contemporary artisans

October 22, 1989|BARBARA THORNBURG | Barbara Thornburg is an associate editor of this magazine.

Craftsman, Arts and Crafts, Mission--essentially they're all the same style, an aesthetic that emerged in the late 1800s partly as a reaction to impersonal, machine-made furniture. And now, deja vu. High-tech lighting and Italian black-leather sofas don't exactly warm up our cocoons. In a recent backlash against 1980s minimalism, East Coast interior designers are touting English and French antiques. Here, we need only step inside the shingled bungalows on nearby streets to see furniture as sophisticated as Europe's Biedermeier, Chippendale or Louis Quatorze.

Stately Craftsman furniture is "simple and dignified and frank," as famed furniture maker Gustav Stickley described his sternly designed, utilitarian wares. It's also expensive. Even in 1905, when the average worker earned $12.50 a week, a bookcase cost $25. Today, signed pieces can be pricey (Barbra Streisand recently paid a record $365,000 for a Stickley sideboard). But there are unsigned chairs available for as little as $275, and the manufacture of authentic-looking reproductions is a growing business.

Though Craftsman furniture was out of fashion for years, Craftsman architecture has never left us (a "ranch house" is only a modern Craftsman bungalow). With heavy roofs, deep eaves and low, horizontal profiles, Southern California's original Craftsman houses range from the carefully renovated, historic homes of Pasadena's Greene brothers to modest cottages--they're on nearly every street--built from mail-order plans. Whatever their original cost, however, these bungalows all share the Craftsman concept: materials left as close as possible to their natural state.

Almost a textbook example of period style, this modest Altadena bungalow was built in 1911. A glance around the living room is a lesson in Craftsman design: Ceiling beams and extensive wood surfaces of quarter-sawn oak are finished in a natural stain. Anticipating modern architects who leave steel beams uncovered, Craftsman builders showed off their exquisite joinery by exposing it. The massive fireplace, originally the room's only source of heat, was built from local arroyo stone. Craftsman wall sconces and hanging lights usually were made of brass or copper that took on a greenish patina with age, but many of the reproductions--the fixtures here are new--come in faux verdigris. As the Craftsman style flourished, small art potteries--many of the most famous potters were women--sprang up around the country. As shown here, a mantel was not complete unless several vases flanked a painting of the period.

Not everyone wants to live in a museum. These modern classics work well with Craftsman style.

Not everyone wants to live in a house that looks like a museum. At least, not the owner of this Hermosa Beach bungalow. Although she's enamored of the Craftsman philosophy, she doesn't find furniture of the period particularly comfortable. Instead, she has furnished some of her rooms with modern classics. In the dining room, an antique Craftsman chandelier hangs over a contemporary Paul D'Urso wood table surrounded by Mies van der Rohe chrome chairs. The rug is an antique kilim; floors are Douglas fir. In the kitchenette, contemporary Robert Venturi chairs sit beside an Eero Saarinen table. Cupboards are filled with Fiesta and Bauer ware plates and pitchers. ("I like the scale of the house. I like the nooks and crannies," the owner says.) A wall of windows allows cross- ventilation, a typical Craftsman feature in the days before air conditioning. One complaint often voiced by owners of Craftsman houses is that they are too dark. To bring more light into the kitchenette, the owner left the wainscot as she found it--painted white by a previous owner. It makes for an airy room that has become her favorite.

New Craftsman furnishings range from "historic reproductions" to "adaptations." Reproductions are more expensive because they are usually precise duplicates of the originals--Sanderson's William Morris wallpapers, for example. A 30-roll order takes eight days to produce, because the design is created with eight different hand blocks. Some Craftsman techniques must be "re-invented": It took Scalamandre two years to analyze the weave of a William Morris wool damask fabric. Adaptations, however, are less exacting and often borrow original patterns for other wares. F. Schumacher & Co. took Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings of concrete blocks and adapted them to wallpaper. Adaptations usually employ modern technology and chemical dyes, so they take less time and money to produce.

3 Modern-Day Craftsmen

MICK LUKAN

Not many stained-glass windows from the Craftsman era survive today, so Lukan fills the gap with Craftsman-style windows of his own. At his Age of Elegance workshop in Pasadena, he uses copper foil rather than lead came (the lead strips that fasten together panes of glass) to give his works an irregular, more authentic appearance.

JAMES IPEKJIAN

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