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12.10.08

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Phaedra

Rohlfs Game

A new book revives the remarkable career of Arts and Crafts pioneer Charles Rohlfs

Reviewed by Michael S. Gant


THE popularity of the Mission and Arts and Crafts styles of furniture and design, especially in Northern California, has elevated architects and artisans like Greene and Greene and Gustav Stickley to a kind of domestic-arts pantheon. Along the garden path from William Morris to Dirk Van Erp lamp reproductions, a fascinating pioneer of the movement has been somewhat eclipsed. Now, a sumptuous volume, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, from the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation and Yale University Press, solidifies the reputation of an artist whose biography is as eccentric as his intricate wood carvings and striking, elongated chairs.

As a young man, Rohlfs (1853–1936) dabbled in acting and worked as a pattern designer in Buffalo and New York City. Onstage, he appeared in small parts in classic Shakespearean dramas with the great American thespian Edwin Booth. Working for a cast-iron foundry, Rohlfs learned to carve the wooden forms that were used to create ornate designs on stoves and other household appliances, even receiving some patents for his innovations. In 1877, he met his future wife, Anna Katharine Green, an author of mystery novels; her bestseller The Leavenworth Case allowed the couple to indulge in a life of what author Joseph Cunningham calls "artistic self-identification." Green took a hands-on approach to the design of her own book jackets and helped Rohlfs with his new business: hand-crafted furniture.

From the late 1880s to about 1910, Rohlfs produced a limited but highly influential quantity of fine, often bespoke cabinets, sideboards, dressers and chairs. He worked in oak, the wood of choice for the burgeoning Arts and Crafts style. His dedication to "his own individual vision" connected Rohlfs' philosophy to the Aesthetic Movement; his excesses of entangling floral motifs hinted at Art Nouveau. In text and exceptional illustrations, Cunningham shows how Rohlfs' ideas for shapes and decoration often preceded (or at least paralleled) similar ideas in the work of Stickley and Roycrafters. Rohlfs sometimes indulged in wild over-ornamentation, resulting in faux-medieval baronial furnishings. Had he stuck with it, he could have done commissions for Hearst Castle. But at his best, he created some exceptional designs, most particularly a gorgeous, almost Moderne chair with a simple triangular base anchoring a delicately soaring narrow backrail. The exquisite fretwork that binds the designs visually was done, Cunningham believes, to represent in the abstract "the cellular structure of oak as seen through a microscope." Just as impressive is an ebonized oak, shell and copper candelabra that reveals radically different structural perspectives when viewed side-on and from the ends. The detailed text analyzes many rare examples of Rohlfs' work; the large-format photographs of existing samples of Rohlfs' pieces are supplemented by period photographs and a selection of original catalog advertisements from the Rohlfs firm.


 THE ARTISTIC FURNITURE OF CHARLES ROHLFS by Joseph Cunningham; Yale University Press; 282 pages; $65 hardback


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