Elevating the Mundane: Our Review of ‘Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman’

Posted in Movies, Virtual Cinema, What's Streaming? by - March 09, 2021
Elevating the Mundane: Our Review of ‘Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman’

Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman has this potential to expose lay people to a movement. That movement calls itself the Arts and Crafts movement which saw furniture as both art and utilitarian. That idea about furniture, which contradicts yet predates Bauhaus, feels revolutionary even today. A century after the movement, the average person presumably divides most objects between artistic and common.

Gustav Stickley then focuses on the man, the practitioner of the art movement. And it lets the man speak through a special narration about how he attached furniture with a certain philosphy. Other interview subjects also chime in. These subjects discuss that philosophy, which many of his colleagues also practiced. Several practices made his furniture different in comparison to his competitors.

Most documentaries about trailblazing artists depict them as prepetual rebels. But to Stickley‘s credit, it makes its subject seem like the kind of person who listen to his critics. Stickley’s designs feel heavy, and that heaviness is part of his reputation today. But within a decade, the subjects here explain that he tried out other aesthetics, meeting critics halfway.

Stickley is going to be unavoidably interview heavy. It is, after all, trying to educate its viewers about the craftsman’s idea of what a home should look like. It’s too bad, then, that the documentary has a dry approach in its enthusiasm. The subjects here also assumes that its perspective is universal. They don’t realize that it takes work to elevate what seems to be mundane.

Breezing through the years, Stickley eventually jumps from the turn of the twentieth century to the First World War. I assume that most viewers assume that war makes for good business, but Stickley actually had to sell his. Cue the narration where the man airs his laundry. Despite that, the documentary doesn’t make its viewers feel that financial downfall.

The same lack of emotional resonance comes with another jump. This time it’s decades after Stickley’s death, and the documentary links that revival with the countercultural movement of the 1960s. Other documentaries and articles have made wilder stretches than this, but the connections here feel tenuous. It makes another assumption, this time, that rebellion means liking what one’s grandparents liked.

Stickley, lastly, enumerates all the exhibitions that academics and fans have mounted. These exhibits are in honour of both the Arts and Crafts movement and of the designer. I am normally a fan of preserving all kinds of history, especially ones where the horros are minor. I just hope that this documentary made a better case for its obscure subject.

Canadian viewers can watch Gustav Stickley: American Craftsman starting this Thursday at https://hotdocscinema.ca/.

  • Release Date: 3/11/2021
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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