Arts and Crafts Maverick
The furniture designs of Charles Rohlfs are highlighted in a major traveling exhibition
The first major exhibition on one of the most creative and enigmatic figures of the American Arts and Crafts movement comes to Southern California this summer. "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" opens at The Huntington on May 22 and continues through Sept. 6 in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. The exhibition premiered at the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2009 and has traveled to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. It will complete its national tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York this fall.
Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936) stands among the leaders of the nation's first foray into modernist design, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley. However, the multiplicity of his sources —which include influences from British Arts and Crafts, French Art Nouveau, and East Asian furniture, among other design traditions—makes the work difficult to categorize and has kept Rohlfs on the periphery of scholarship that has focused on more easily defined turn-of-the-century styles.
The exhibition surveys his extraordinary furniture and decorative objects through 44 examples, including pieces made by the artist for his own home as well as major commissioned works. Bringing together masterpieces culled from the collections of 10 museums and several private collections, the exhibition and accompanying book reflect new scholarship based on the Rohlfs family archives and recently discovered primary source material.
"It is an extraordinary privilege to present this exhibition here," said John Murdoch, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of Art Collections at The Huntington. "Rohlfs' sculpturally imaginative sense of design differentiates him from most other British and American artist-craftsmen working at the turn of the century, and places him in a class of his own. I hope visitors are as astonished and delighted with his work as we are."
The exhibition is a natural fit at The Huntington, as progressive design of the late 19th and early 20th century is a growing strength of the institution's holdings, anchored by a major collection of William Morris materials acquired in 1999. Since then, many significant works by both British and American designers have been added to the collection. In fact, a highlight of "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" is an extraordinary oak rocking chair that is a promised gift to The Huntington. Once the exhibition tour is completed, the chair will join a massive ebonized oak library table by the artist in a permanent installation devoted to early 20th-century design within the newly expanded Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.
Rohlfs was the son of a cabinetmaker in Brooklyn and trained in design at the Cooper Union in New York City. In 1884, he married the popular novelist Anna Katharine Green (1846–1935), who is now credited as a collaborator in the artist's work and contributor to the design of some of the motifs he carved into his furniture. Green was an extremely successful mystery writer whose work is represented in The Huntington's library holdings.
In 1897 Rohlfs began a serious career as a furniture maker. By the time his workshop closed 10 years later, he had developed an international reputation for his work, earning entry into the Royal Society of Arts in London. Marshall Field's department store promoted his work around 1900; in 1901 he exhibited at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo; and in 1902, Rohlfs' designs were featured in the Exposition of International Design in Turin, Italy.
Rohlfs' furniture, consistently made of oak, clearly relates to the pared-down forms typical of the Arts and Crafts movement, but, seeing himself as an artist, he preferred the terms "artistic furniture" or "the Rohlfs style," to differentiate his work from the mainstream Arts and Crafts movement.
"Rohlfs' work is genius because it combines styles in completely unique ways," explains Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art at The Huntington. "He was interested in an organic form suggestive of the Art Nouveau movement in Europe, but his greatest contribution to early 20th-century design was his free and fanciful style, which combines a remarkably broad range of influences and an almost inexhaustible vocabulary of pierced and carved ornamental decoration."
A stunning desk chair made around 1898 illustrates the point. Its modernist backrest, in the form of a dramatically elongated trapezoid cut from a single piece of oak, is carved with ornamental patterns inspired by the cellular structure of oak as seen through a microscope.
Another foray into elegant, modern form is the rocking chair, made in about 1899, that is a promised gift to The Huntington. The chair was essentially constructed from four wood slabs set on two bold, carefully proportioned, bowed planks of oak. Curvy keyhole notches punctuate the design on the back, armrests, and near the bottom of the chair. Under each armrest is a large decorative medallion cut from a single board in a pattern with obvious connections to Asian design.
The Huntington's presentation of "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" includes historic photos and rare editions of books by the designer's wife and collaborator. A video installation features a short documentary about Rohlfs' life before he began his furniture-making career.
"The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" is organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chipstone Foundation, and American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. The exhibition is curated by Joseph Cunningham, curatorial director of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation.
Joseph Cunningham, curator of "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" and author of the related book, will speak at The Huntington's Members' Open House. Open to Members only.
Related Book (Catalog)
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs by Joseph Cunningham with a foreword by Bruce Barnes and an introduction by Sarah Fayen. Published in 2008 by Yale University Press in association with the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation; 304 pages. Handsomely designed and lavishly illustrated, this award winning book is the most comprehensive publication to date on the artist and includes a complete set of unpublished period illustrations of more than 70 works. Hardcover ($65) and soft-cover ($50) editions are available at The Huntington's Bookstore & More
This exhibition is made possible by Steve Martin.
Additional support is provided by the Windgate Charitable Foundation and the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation.