L. and J.G. Stickley, Inc.
L. and J.G. Stickley, Inc.
Sales: $137 million (2001)
NAIC: 337122 Wood Household Furniture (except Upholstered) Manufacturing; 337121 Upholstered Household Furniture Manufacturing; 337211 Wood Office Furniture Manufacturing
Founded in 1900 by Leopold and John George Stickley, L. and J.G. Stickley, Inc. is a manufacturer and marketer of premium solid wood furniture. Privately owned by the Audi family since 1974, the company now operates a facility greater than 400,000 square feet in Manlius, New York, an upholstery plant in North Carolina, and six retail showrooms in New York and Connecticut.
1898-1916: The Stickley Brothers and the American Arts and Crafts Movement
The eldest of five brothers, Gustav Stickley started out making knockoffs of Victorian furniture; however, his aesthetic sensibilities lay with the clean, unadorned lines of the British Arts and Crafts movement. In 1898, Stickley visited England where followers of the new design philosophy were in revolt against the excessive ornamentation and shabby workmanship that they felt resulted from mass production techniques. Led chiefly by William Morris and fellow Britisher John Ruskin, Scotsman Rennie Mackintosh, and Austrian Josef Hoffman, supporters of the Arts and Crafts movement practiced a return to handcrafted styles and preached a simpler life.
Stickley, then 41, returned home to Eastwood, New York, where he set up his Craftsman Shops in 1898 and began to experiment with his own distinctive designs. He favored clean lines and emphasized the inherent beauty of natural wood and leather. Like Morris, he sought inspiration in the styles of the medieval period. He worked in natural white oak because of its strength and “honesty.” Rejecting ornamentation and valuing craftsmanship, he based his designs on rectilinear forms; construction features, such as mortise and tenon and dovetail joints, doubled as decoration. He labeled his original pieces with his name and shopmark, which depicted a small joiner’s compass inset with the slogan “Als ik kan,” or “To the best of my ability,” in Flemish.
Stickley’s furniture—called Mission Oak because of the early 1900s popularity of California mission architecture and because it somewhat resembled the furniture used in the missions—soon found enthusiastic support. So, too, did Stickley’s philosophy, which others embraced as visionary and reformist. Soon manufacturers across the country were creating their own versions of “mission” furniture. These included Stickley’s own younger brothers: Leopold and John George, who incorporated in Fayetteville, New York, in 1904, and, in 1905, introduced their first furniture line alongside Gustav’s Mission Oak at a Grand Rapids trade show; Albert Stickley, who made furniture under the label Stickley Brothers Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Charles Stickley, who shared ownership of Stickley and Brandt Chair Co. in Binghamton, New York.
All of the Stickleys were accomplished craftsmen, who, like their older brother, were not opposed to machines; they simply used machinery to get the manufacturing process to the point where the hand could efficiently take over and complete the joinery. It was not industrialization per se that they rejected, but the sloppy work practices encouraged by mass production. In fact, Leopold and John George Stickley introduced some cutting edge designs and innovative construction techniques of their own with their Handcraft line. However, only Gustav Stickley attempted to market a lifestyle.
Like his European counterparts, Gustav Stickley published on the subject of his philosophy of simplicity. He introduced his own magazine, The Craftsman, whose masthead announced its purpose as being “in the interest of better art, better work, and a better, more reasonable way of living,” and filled it with treatises and illustrations of his furniture and interior design—every aspect of the designed environment, from tiles and pottery to gardens and landscape. He also developed and sold model house plans in The Craftsman and in his two books of home designs.
By 1907, the American Arts and Crafts movement had taken on a life of its own across the United States, becoming a popular statement against certain aspects of industrialization and a work ethic based on handicraft. Stickley had invented “the furniture of the American ideal,” according to a 1983 New York Times article, “simple, sturdy, unpretentious; functional, natural—a homemade style that was an ethic to live by.” The Greene Brothers in California and Frank Lloyd Wright in the Midwest became champions of the new style. In 1908, the Stickley family moved to a 650-acre farm in Parsippany, New Jersey, where Stickley envisioned opening a school for training craftsman. The farm also supplied produce for the Craftsman restaurant, owned and operated by Stickley at his business headquarters in New York City.
1918-1974: L. & J.G. Stickley, Inc.
Yet by the mid-1910s, furniture tastes were changing; by the end of World War I, the public desired more traditional designs once again. Despite Gustav Stickley’s success, the Craftsman Shops went bankrupt in 1916, the victim of changing tastes and mass-produced versions of Stickley’s own work. Stickley retired from the furniture business to the home of his granddaughter where he died in 1942. In 1918, Leopold and John George Stickley acquired Gustav’s factory. John George died in 1921. Leopold traveled widely throughout Europe collecting trestle tables, corner cupboards, dressers, and Windsor chairs, and developed a successful line of American Colonial furniture called the Cherry Valley Collection, launched in response to market trends, in 1922.
In the following decades, Gustav Stickley’s work was largely forgotten, his furniture retired to basements and attics. L. & J.G. Stickley continued to manufacture furniture for the next three decades in Fayetteville, New York. A savvy businessman, Leopold Stickley secured contracts to build desks and chairs for nearby colleges and high schools during the Depression when many furniture companies were going bankrupt. During World War II, he manufactured furniture for the Navy. In 1956, Leopold Stickley was honored as “The Revered Dean of Cabinet Makers” by magazines that included Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, House and Garden, Town and Country, Fortune, New Yorker, and National Geographic, as a craftsman “whose Art & Craftsmanship has contributed mightily to American home life.” Upon his death a year later, his widow, Louise Stickley, took over the business.
1974-2002: The Audis Lead the Company to New Success
During the 1960s, Louise Stickley let many of the company’s craftsmen go without replacing them. She refused to hire women as furniture makers or men with long hair. By the early 1970s, after more than ten years of losses, L. & J.G. Stickley’s remaining work force of about 20 men was almost completely demoralized, and sales had dropped to about $235,000. By the early 1970s, still out of fashion, Stickley Mission Oak pieces sold alongside mission-style knockoffs in antique shops for identical prices. In 1973, Stickley called Alfred Audi, son of E.J. Audi, Stickley’s largest dealer and a close friend of Leopold, and told him that she was thinking of closing shop. Audi bought the ailing company.
Audi had graduated from Colgate University and served three years in the National Guard before becoming president of E.J. Audi, his family’s long-established furniture distributorship in Manhattan, in 1968. He had grown up sleeping in a Stickley bed. Audi asked his wife, Aminy, a former schoolteacher at the United Nations School in New York City, to support him in selling their Brooklyn brownstone and moving to upstate New York so that they could buy and run L. & J.G. Stickley, Inc.
After securing a Small Business Administration loan for $200,000, the Audis bought the company along with the rights to Gustav Stickley’s original designs and his name. Alfred Audi, in charge of production, hired new workers—including women and men with long hair—and invited Stickley retirees to return to work when they felt like it. Aminy Audi took charge of marketing. Together, the couple introduced new styles of furniture that he knew would sell—Queen Anne and Chippendale collections—and set about to mend the company’s strained relationships with furniture dealers.
By 1975, the Audis first full year at the helm of L. & J.G. Stickley, the company’s sales had more than tripled, but the business was still so undercapitalized that the Audis had to dip into sales and withholding taxes to meet payroll expenses. Banks refused to give the revived company loans despite the surge in demand for their product because the Audis were “too new to the business,” according to a 1990 Forbes article. Finally, in the late 1970s, the tide began to turn, and with the help of a few small loans and the Audis’ 90–hour work week, sales reached $7 million in 1983. In 1984, the Audis began construction on a new plant in Manlius, New York, two miles from the original Stickley factory, and introduced their 18th Century Mahogany line. The company moved to Manlius in 1985.
A change in decorating trends brought about the Audis next big break. Interest in Arts and Crafts Furniture had been growing on the part of collectors, antique dealers, art historians, and museums since the mid-1970s. Mission Oak was once again being featured in interior design publications and collectors—some of them famous—bid for Stickleys at auctions. After attending an Arts and Crafts auction at Christie’s in 1988 at which Barbra Streisand bought a 1903 Gustav Stickley sideboard cabinet built for his Craftsman Farms home for $363,000, the Audis began to reproduce between 30 and 40 items from the original Mission Oak line.
Our corporate mission is to offer honest craftsmanship, inherent value, and unmatched service. Our goal is to be recognized by the discerning customer as the finest solid wood furniture manufacturer in the world.
In 1989, the Mission Oak line grew to 15 percent of the company’s sales of $25 million, helping Stickley boost overall sales 16 percent. The company was now comfortably profitable and expanding, and in 1992, the Audis introduced coordinating mission-style lamps and accessories, following Gustav Stickley’s original designs. That same year, the Mission Oak line accounted for 48 percent of the company’s overall sales of $37 million. By the early 1990s, the price of antique Stickleys had dropped; however, L. & J.G. Stickley continued to benefit from the resurgence in popularity of Arts and Crafts designs.
Annual sales growth for the decade from 1980 to 1990 was 19 percent. Between 1994 and 1999, the company doubled in size. In the second half of the 1990s, the company began to diversify and update its offerings, introducing more new lines than it had during the ten previous years. In 1995, Stickley added its Metropolitan line, a contemporary take on Mission Oak in solid cherry and acquired the Heirloom upholstery factory in High Point, North Carolina. A year later, it embarked on a second update with its 21st Century Mission line, also built from solid cherry. In 1999, it brought out its French collection, called Directoire. In spring 2000, the company introduced museum-quality reproductions of early Colonial designs under the label “Williamsburg Reserve Collection.”
Stickley was by now operating a second shift to lower overhead and keep its machines going more than 90 hours a week. A second generation of Audis, Carolyn and Edward, joined the company after completing college. Carolyn Audi focused on dealer relationships, including marketing, display, product development, and training. Edward Audi focused on equipment and computer upgrades to improve production processes.
By the turn of the century, Stickleys were sold throughout the world by more than one hundred independent dealers and through Stickley’s own five-store chain. After close to ten expansions, the company operated a facility of more than 400,00 square feet in Manlius, New York. It expanded its High Point plant with a 65,000-square-foot addition in late 1999, and there were plans to move forward with a Craftsman Inn and a Craftsman House hotel and restaurant, capitalizing on Gustav Stickley’s lifestyle philosophy. In 2002, the company added a 78,000-square-foot showroom in Fayetteville, New York, which replaced the 38,000-square foot-showroom at the Manlius plant. This showroom, which used the new retail name, Stickley, Audi & Co., also showcased furniture by other manufacturers, such as Baker, Century, Henredon, Hickory Chair, Vanguard, Ralph Lauren, Hancock & Moore, Leathercraft, Ekornes, Cibola, and Bradington-Young.
As the Audis embarked upon their second quarter of a century in business, others attributed their success to their personal patience, hard work, and sense of timing and risk. Aminy Audi herself credited the golden rule in a 1999 Leaders magazine interview: “Treat people as you would have them treat you. Be compassionate and caring. If you are compassionate and caring, people will become productive, and in productivity you reap the rewards that lead to a healthy bottom line.”
Stickley Fine Upholstery; Stickley, Audi & Co.
Baker Furniture Co.; Henredon.
- Gustav Stickley opens Craftsman Shops in Eastwood, New York.
- Leopold and John George Stickley purchase the Collins, Sisson & Pratt furniture company in Fayetteville, New York.
- L. and J.G. Stickley incorporates.
- Both Craftsman Shops and L. and J.G. Stickley introduce Mission Oak at a trade show in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
- Gustav Stickley goes bankrupt.
- Leopold and J.G. Stickley purchase Craftsman Shops.
- J.G. Stickley dies.
- Leopold Stickley announces the introduction of the Cherry Valley Collection.
- Gustav Stickley dies.
- Leopold Stickley dies; Louise Stickley takes over management of the company.
- Alfred and Aminy Audi purchase L. & J.G. Stickley.
- The company moves into a new plant in Manlius, New York.
- Stickley acquires the former Heirloom upholstery factory.
- Stickley enlarges its upholstery facility.
- The company opens it new showroom in Fayetteville, called Stickley, Audi & Co.
Brown, Christie, “The Stickley Crash,” Forbes, April 26, 1993, p. 190.
Danial, Michael, “The Mission of the Stickley Brothers,” Wood & Wood Products, December 1997, accessed via ISW Online, http://www.iswonline.com. Garet, Barbara, “Against All Odds,” Wood & Wood Products, October 1993, p. 41.
Giovannini, Joseph, “On Stickley Day, Houses and Furniture,” New York Times, September 29, 1983, p. C8.
Machan, Dyan, “Rescuing a Proud Name,” Forbes, February 5, 1990, p. 132.
Pelo, Marilyn, “Furniture with a Mission,” New York Times Magazine, December 14, 1980, p. 170.
“What You Can Learn from a Family Business,” Leaders, October-December 1999.