Cincinnati’s Shop of the Crafters

Screen Shot 2020-05-13 at 1.53.29 PMWhen you think of American Arts & Crafts furniture, the names Stickley and Limbert are probably the first to spring to mind, but in my neck of the woods, I think Onken. Well, not really – but I do think immediately of the Cincinnati company he bought in 1904, The Shop of the Crafters.

Unlike the many shops of the turn of the 20th century that offered close copies of Stickley designs, The Shop of the Crafters incorporated German influences (not a surprise in Cincinnati, which had at least six German-language newspapers in the 19th century) and Hungarian influences, thanks to the lead designer, Pál Horti. Many of the designs incorporate inlay in contrasting woods and metal, which lends a touch of refinement.  Though some of it is, to my eye, a bit on the overwrought side, the marketing language of the 1906 catalog tells me I must be a philistine:

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“The Crafter movement seeks to obliterate over-decoration, pur­poseless, meaningless designs and to install instead, a purity of style, which will express at once, beauty, durability and usefulness.

“Working in harmony with this idea Professor Paul Horti has introduced a touch of inlay work of colored woods or metal, that enlivens the strong simple lines of Mission furniture.

“Professor Horti’s dining room at the St. Louis Fair and his designs for the decoration of the Hungarian sections in the Palace of Fine Arts Building, Manufacturers’ Building and Mines and Metallurgy Building were so wholly delightful in their originality as to have exerted a far reaching influence on the general, crafts’ move­ment. His work with the Shop of the Crafters of Cincinnati has contributed to the distinction it enjoys for productions that are pure in style and of artistic beauty. Your attention is directed to the special pieces referred to, which you will find on the following pages.

“In fine cabinet work and finish the Shop of the Crafters particularly excels. The wood is selected church oak; the workmanship shows the highest skill and the true craftsman’s thought for durability and service. The different finishes are mellow and lovely, bringing out, not concealing the natural beauty of the wood.”

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I do have a couple of Shop of the Crafters pieces on my “to build” list (including the Morris chair that Christopher Schwarz built in the June 2000 issues of Popular Woodworking – it’s the No. 413 shown at top).

There are several interesting online sources for more information, including:

• The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County offers a download of the company’s 1906 catalog

• The Hagely Museum and Library (Wilmington, Del.) offers a download of the company’s window and other store displays

• The Met offers a digitized catalog of the company’s 1912-13 Dining Room Furniture

There’s also a 2017 book, “Oscar Onken and The Shop of the Crafters at Cincinnati,” by M.J. McCracken and W. Michael McCracken, that shares the history of Onken and his designers, as well as catalogs, photos of the pieces and the entire first issue of The Lantern, a short-lived promotional magazine on the company and its philosophy (Chris wrote about it here).

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And when it’s safe to travel again, plan a visit to Cincinnati, and save time for a few hours (at least) at the Cincinnati Art Museum, where there’s a good collection of Shop of the Crafters and other Cincinnati-made furniture.

— Fitz




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