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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I Made a Strange Table We Didn’t Really Need

My friend Jimmy makes furniture in my woodshop. Sometimes he finds stuff that’s so cool that I want one for myself and we make two. Such was the case with this reproduction of an oddball, early Gustav Stickley poppy table.

Mostly known for his rectilinear “Mission” furniture, Stickley would occasionally detour into curvy Art Nouveau territory. He traveled to continental Europe in 1895 and, I’m guessing, also read German language newspapers published in American which covered the latest trends. He had a brief few years of staggering creativity and innovation in the first decade of the 20th century, quickly went bankrupt and faded into obscurity until a revival of interest in his work in the 1970s.

It wasn’t too difficult to make this table if you don’t count the many hours of filing and sanding all those tight radius curves. I wish I could say that you don’t need many tools but that’s not the case. We deployed a jointer, planer, scroll saw and hand planes. We freehand routed the poppy pattern on the two horizontal surfaces. The quarter sawn white oak came from Bohnhoff Lumber.

My workshop is right on the street so people walking their dogs and heading to the hip restaurants on Sunset boulevard see me working. I felt weird working on this particular table because it’s about as far from what’s fashionable now as you can get–kind of like Pearl Jam, but furniture. The brief fling with Craftsman style and Grunge back in the 1990s is long over, replaced by mid-century modern and unstained Silver Lake Shaman furniture. But I don’t care. I vibe with this table’s biomorphic exoticism and decadence. It’s just missing the absinthe fountain dripper.

If you’d like to make one of your own you can purchase plans here. I used these finishing directions, specifically for the “Onondaga” finish.