The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs

The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs

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Desk Chair, ca. 1898-99, oak, 53.9 x 15.9 x 16.8 in., with Anna Katharine Green. Photo Michael W. Davidson and Florida State University, promised gift to Metropolitan Museum of Art by American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation.

Like the pottery of his contemporary Geoge Ohr, Rohlfs's work resides betwixt and between, a giddy fusion of nostalgic and progressive design that reflects the lively push and pull of his era.

Milwaukee Art Museum
Milwaukee, WI
June 6 - Aug. 23, 2009

Charles Rohlfs's furniture doesn't fit art history's boxes. Gothic Revival? Heavy oak with elaborate metal fittings, yes; but decades too late and far too eccentrically ornamented. It's also a bit late for the Aesthetic Movement. With its solid rectilinear outlines, Rohlfs's furniture is often allied to the Arts and Crafts Movement. But while his work is mostly built with straightforward plank construction, more often than not it's held together with plugged screws; and its elaborate carved and pierced decoration seems better suited to the overstuffed languor of a Victorian parlor than an upright Arts and Crafts room. Most of all, Rohlfs's highly individualistic carving and fretwork simply defy categorization. Scholars have invoked virtually the entire spectrum of late-19th-century eclecticism as design influences, from Chinese to Islamic, Romanesque to Louis Sullivan-esque. Strangely, almost all of these suggestions seem plausible. Like the pottery of his contemporary George Ohr, Rohlfs's work resides betwixt and between, a giddy fusion of nostalgic and progressive design that reflects the lively push and pull of his era.

The intriguing eccentricity of Rohlfs's designs attracted museum curators to his work in the 1970s, and dealers have priced his furniture at the top tier, in line with pieces attributed to Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright. Active for just 10 years (1897-1907), Rohlfs appears to have produced no more than a few hundred pieces. He made halfhearted efforts to build up inventory and attract customers, but lacking real financial pressure Rohlfs focused his energy on ambitious, experimental design. Over 40 of his best pieces are on view in this exhibition, the first to explore Rohlfs's career in depth and give credit to his wife and sometime artistic collaborator, Anna Katharine Green. The show is fueled in large part by the energy of Bruce Barnes, one of Rohlfs's earliest, most devoted collectors and president of the American Decorative Arts 1900 Foundation; Barnes's partner, art historian Joseph Cunningham, curated the show and authored its exceptionally thorough catalog.

Rohlfs was a fascinating character. An aspiring actor who described Shakespeare as his master, he grew up in working-class Brooklyn. By age 18 he was employed as a patternmaker for an iron foundry, a trade that required carving skills but minimal engagement with the structural properties of wood. Rohlfs rose through the ranks to become a designer, creating decorative cast-iron stoves that were marketed as artistic furnishings. When he married Green, a successful novelist, her income gave him the freedom to pursue the stage full-time. But his acting career was short-lived. Underemployed and restless, in 1896 Rohlfs began building furniture for use in their home, and within a few years had established a professional shop.

A natural showman, Rohlfs downplayed his experience in the stove industry and presented himself as a cultivated man with a genius for design. Since Oscar Wilde had singled out cast-iron stoves for censure in his lectures on taste, Rohlfs may have wished to distance himself from that industry-even though his own designs were in keeping with Wilde's aesthetic. Yet much of Rohlfs's furniture is intriguingly similar to his stoves, which relied on elaborate patterns and textures to enliven boxy, monochrome forms. His most successful pieces, like the Desk Chair, 1898-99, Tall-Back Rocking Chair, ca. 1901, and Standing Desk, 1902-4, marry form and ornament brilliantly. The simplicity and clarity of the Desk Chair restrains its radically asymmetrical carved design; likewise, in the Tall-Back Rocking Chair and Standing Desk, complex ornamental passages are quieted by broad expanses of undecorated wood. The visual buzz of Rohlfs's swirling patterns against oak's pronounced grain creates an intensity and drama quite alien to the gravitas of Arts and Crafts furniture. In pieces that strike the right balance, the result is wonderfully exciting. But theater critics complained of Rohlfs's penchant for chewing scenery, and at times his furniture reflects the same tendency. His most inventive designs have a turbulent energy that borders on frenzy, with wild fret-sawn profiles and thickets of densely carved ornament.

As an industrial patternmaker, Rohlfs had become intimately familiar with the class divisions between craftsmen and designers. He clearly knew which side of that line he wanted to occupy and embraced the role of auteur as an industrial designer and as an actor. As a furniture maker, Rohlfs was not wedded to process or craftsmanship. Although he was devoted to wood as a material, what mattered most to him was artistic originality and individual expression. Through this shift in emphasis, Rohlfs and a handful of his contemporaries in this and other mediums quietly, almost inadvertently, invented a new vocation: the studio crafts. His work and career encapsulate the contradictory aspirations and assumptions that still inspire and plague the field today.
Jody Clowes is a curator and writer from Madison, WI.

The exhibition is at the Dallas Museum of Art through Jan. 3, 2010, and tours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, Jan. 30 - Apr. 25, 2010, and other venues. The hardcover catalog is $65 from Yale University Press.