I Spent 11 Months Building an Uncomfortable Couch

My Pomona comrade and shop collaborator Jimmy has a habit of suggesting woodworking projects that, while not fulfilling vital needs around our old houses, somehow just need to get built. Such was the case when he proposed making two reproductions of the obscure Gustav Stickley Divan #165, one for his house and one for ours.

The couch dates from the summer of 1900, when Stickley employed, at great expense, the architect Henry W. Wilkerson to design a line he called “The New Furniture.” Wilkerson is probably best known as the architect of one of New York City’s few Arts and Crafts style apartment buildings. Fun fact: Madonna lived there, and if you’ve got a $5,000,000 housing budget and can afford the $4,000 a month maintenance fee so can you. But I digress.

Wilkerson’s design has some of Stickley’s austere reaction to fussy Victorianism but softened by gothic arches in the back seat slats and a kind of Greene and Greene-esque shape on the bottom rails.

We found measured drawings in Robert Lang’s Shop Drawings for Craftsman Furniture for a later, simplified couch with the same dimensions. We popped the measurements into Sketchup and changed the back slats into Wilkerson’s arched design using auction photographs as a guide. I’m guessing, for some combination of a desire for a more rectilinear design and ease of manufacture, Stickley eliminated the arches in later models of this couch.

I noticed this couch in the background of Greene and Greene’s dreamy James A. Culberton house, the location of America’s worst remodeling disaster.

Since Jimmy can only work on Saturdays our two Divans took many months to complete. The wood had to be milled and shaped and the piece has 58 mortise and tenon joints. We also had to figure out how to do the curved top rail. We used quartersawn white oak, the same wood that Stickley used for most of his furniture. Manny at Custom Designs Upholstery in Pasadena did the cushion.

I’m very pleased with the end result and thankful to have a wood shop. The divan has decadent 1900 vibes, kind of the perfect couch to faint on after too many rounds of absinthe consumed while your significant other plays the Liszt Wagner transcriptions on the nearby piano. That’s the fantasy, at least. More likely I’ll simply fall asleep on it after a lengthy Twitter doomscrolling bender.

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5 Comments

  1. So worth the effort, Erik. It’s gorgeous. Not to raise the specter of my grandmother’s mass-produced Stickley couch again, but it’s known to everyone in our family as The Rack. I’m a Stickley kid for sure. Would choose the firm/hard surfaces of these stunners over a marshmallow couch any day. Keep up the beautiful effort…

  2. What a gorgeous piece!! I remember taking naps on one with a pile of pillows. It has always been my dream to own one along with a Stickley desk. All my furniture is ancient, picked up before certain movie people started buying and raising the prices. Well made wood furniture is priceless. Great to hear that you also used quarter cut oak. You have created something that will last for generations. Congratulations!

  3. Dang. You weren’t kidding about that worst-remodel-ever candidate. Good grief! That’s a pretty swell-looking bench you got there though! And kitty approved! That’s so important. 🙂

  4. A lovely sight to behold. And, it looks like it might be comfortable, in the form of a guest bed for a smallish child?

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