‘Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman’ Review: Artisanal Admiration

The documentary “Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman” offers an introduction to a designer (1858-1942) who became a crucial figure in the American Arts and Crafts movement. But the movie itself, directed by Herb Stratford, is so dull and unimaginative in its presentation — talking heads, an overused score that might as well have been downloaded from a free database — that it makes for an unfortunate match of subject matter and form.

This hourlong film is pitched at a level of detail that is admirable in theory but ill-suited to dabblers — or to the medium. The Stickley biographer David Cathers, one of many people charged with delivering dry exegesis (he also shares a writing credit on the film), speaks in a calm, unvaried tone as he discusses how “Stickley moved his family from Walnut Avenue in Syracuse to Columbus Avenue in Syracuse” or recounts Stickley’s eccentric late-career quest to develop a perfect furniture finish “that manufacturers could apply efficiently and at low cost.” He might as well be reading from his book.

It is marginally livelier to hear from the Stickley relative Richard Wiles, who relates being told that a dresser whose drawers he used to smash shut ended up in a museum. The documentary does its baseline job of showcasing what made Stickley an innovator. You leave with a desire to visit The Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms, his New Jersey estate, as well as the Craftsman Building in New York. And by the end, a viewer could probably identify Stickley furniture with at least 50-50 accuracy.

Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 7 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.

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