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First major survey of work by furniture master
Charles Rohlfs at the Huntington until Sept. 6

May 25, 2010 | 10:00 am

Rohlfs_desk_chairWhen it comes to American Craftsman furniture, Gustav Stickley is often considered the master. His mass-produced, catalog-sold chairs and tables flooded the market nearly a century ago and created one of the world’s first furniture brands. Less known, however, is the work of Charles Rohlfs, a contemporary of Stickley, whose more eclectic but equally influential furniture is on exhibit at the Huntington Library through Sept. 6.

“The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs” showcases the designer who never got the attention that his competitor Stickley did.  Yet before the Arts & Crafts Movement was “Rohlfs Style.” Rohlfs' concepts borrowed heavily from the 19th century Aesthetic movement (“art for art’s sake”), but as this show proves, his work is thoroughly original.

Rolhfs_portrait Rohlfs, initially trained in science, attended Cooper Union in New York for an art education, worked as a pattern maker and designer of cast-iron stoves.  He even was an actor before he began to design furniture.  It wasn’t until the 1890s that Rohlfs started making furniture with the help of his wife, mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green.

Influenced by architect Louis Sullivan, Rohlfs' ornamental works belie their simple structures. “Rohlfs’s structures are generally quite plain with simple geometric shapes creating the overall framework, even where elaborate flourishes of carving are present,” writes Bruce Barnes, founder and president of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, who provided the forward to the catalog.

Nearly all of his pieces are oak, but each is uniquely and creatively carved and shaped. One may notice Japanese influences in a piece, Moorish or  Scandinavian in another. Rohlfs_lampBut it is precisely this wide variety of decoration that makes these pieces uniquely Rohlfs'. “The form is the ornamentation, and the ornamentation is the form,” writes Barnes. Sometimes the inspiration isn't so clear. For his striking 1898 desk chair, pictured at right, the trapezoidal backrest is decorated with patterns replicating the cellular structure of oak wood as seen through a microscope.

Among the 44 works in the exhibition are chairs, desks, tables and accessories such as plant-stands and lamps.  Historic photographs, rare books and a short documentary are included  as well.

The exhibition, which opened Saturday, continues through Sept. 6 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino; (626) 405-2100.

-- Roselle Curwen

Photos: Interior of the Rohlfs home in 1905. Several pieces in the exhibit are ones Rohlfs made for his house, including the rocking chair in the foreground. Credit: The Winterthur Library; An 1898 desk chair on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Credit: Gavin Ashworth/American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation; Charles Rohlfs portrait from about 1905. Credit: The Winterthur Library; A 1904 lamp made of copper and brass with kappa shell shade, from the Rohlfs home. Credit: Gavin Ashworth/American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation