Review by Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio
Drama in Design: The Life and Craft of Charles Rohlfs.

Michael L. James. Drama in Design: The Life and Craft of Charles Rohlfs. Buffalo, N.Y.: Burchfield Art Center, Buffalo College Foundation, 1994. 104 pp.; 85 color and bw illustrations, appendixes, bibliography, checklist of exhibition. $30.

Drama in Design: The Life and Craft of Charles Rohlfs is the first comprehensive study of the personal life and creative career of Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936) and is the culmination of over a decade of interest in Rohlfs by author Michael L. James, an independent scholar in Buffalo, New York. This richly illustrated book, published in conjunction with the 1994 exhibition “The Craftsmanship of Charles Rohlfs” at the Burchfield Art Center, Buffalo, will prove to be an important reference work, even if some of its assertions about Rohlfs’s place in the arts and crafts movement and the influences on his work are questioned.

In a 1900 address to an arts and crafts conference, Rohlfs explained that “the things produced in the glow of enthusiasm are the things that have stood the test of time because they have been natural to the producer” (p. 93). His quotation aptly describes his own idiosyncratic furniture. It received wide recognition in his lifetime, but it was then left unexplored until the 1970s when scholars became interested in the American arts and crafts movement.[1] James contends that lack of information about Rohlfs has caused his principles and motivations to be poorly understood and has consequently left him unrecognized by the general public. James states in his introduction that his goal is to elevate Rohlfs’s status as an artistic furniture designer (p. 9)—a reputation once accorded him and still, the author asserts, entirely deserved.

Drama in Design presents a great deal of new information on Rohlfs.[2] Each succinct chapter reveals previously unknown details of his life and knits a fascinating tale that well reflects his “glow of enthusiasm” for all his endeavors. The text follows a biographical format—the opening chapters detail Rohlfs’s early life and career, the text then explores his creative nature as manifested in furniture, and it closes by outlining his personal and civic efforts.

James fully recounts Rohlfs’s acting career and his collaboration with his wife, novelist Anna Katharine Green, topics only briefly mentioned in earlier published information. Rohlfs began his artistic career as a cast-iron stove and furnace designer in New York City while attending night classes at Cooper Union and pursuing his first true passion, acting. Rohlfs’s 1877 stage debut was followed by a brief tenure with the Boston Theater Company. Unable to attain significant roles, however, Rohlfs retreated to a design career and continued his self-study in acting—a pattern that continued throughout his early career. By 1880, Rohlfs garnered some respectable reviews and consequently attained roles in traveling performances and held the lead role in several of his own productions. Critics responded equivocally to his later performances, citing his “peculiar interpretation” and display of “real dramatic power” (p. 29). The same assessment might be made of his furniture, which suggests the intimate and heretofore undocumented association between Rohlfs’s theatrical and furniture-making careers; drama was essential to both.

James chronicles Rohlfs’s cabinetmaking career from the earliest indications of his interest in furniture in 1887 through the development and growth of his company. Rohlfs initially made furniture for his own apartment, but interest in his creations resulted in numerous commissions. Rohlfs soon outgrew his modest attic work area and opened his first shop in Buffalo, where he and his family had settled in the late 1880s.

“The Sign of the Saw,” the most extensive chapter in the book, explores the production of Rohlfs’s furniture, its distinguishing characteristics, and the international recognition it achieved. When Rohlfs’s business expanded, he no longer constructed the works but limited his role to designing furniture. He continued, however, to assert his artistic philosophy in the production process. He referred to his workmen as “fellow-laborers” and believed their sentiments were integral to the manufacture of the work: “to produce artistic furniture,” he said, “they ‘must be in sympathy and work with the feeling that they are part of the plan’” (p. 57). Unlike his contemporaries, Rohlfs maintained a close relationship with the fabrication of the object. After he completed the initial design, a scale model of the object was presented to Rohlfs for approval. The manufacturing process included hand and machine labor and resulted in aesthetically unusual, even whimsical, forms, distinguished by Rohlfs’s sinuous motifs. Similar processes and enthusiasm were part of the production scheme for other wares by Rohlfs, such as lamps and chafing dishes.

Rohlfs’s work found increasing favor among an international audience, as James’s account documents. Rohlfs participated in numerous national and international expositions. His acclaim was so far-reaching that he received accolades from European royalty and numerous commissions for entire room suites. The most well-documented Rohlfs interior is the house he and his wife constructed in 1912. Drama in Design contains outstanding images of the house. They depict a diverse group of Rohlfs’s objects in the setting for which they were intended—he also designed the interior of the home including wood and plaster work and light fixtures.

The book concludes with two chapters that summarize Rohlfs’s participation in various arts-related organizations, the patents he developed during his lifetime, and the last decades of his personal life. These chapters are visually rich, and the images, combined with the wealth of details, lend insight into the personality of a designer who was, and is, often considered eccentric. The final section of Drama in Design reprints five speeches and interviews, including “True and False in Furniture” (an address given to a 1900 arts and crafts conference in Buffalo) and a 1902 speech given to an arts and crafts conference in Chautauqua, New York. These selections illuminate Rohlfs’s beliefs and document that he never lost his flair for dramatic presentation. The closing pages contain a bibliography and a checklist of the exhibition at the Burchfield Art Center.

A closer look at some of the key assertions in Drama in Design reveals its limitations. The chapter “Sources of Rohlfs’ Style” presents information on the stylistic influences on Rohlfs, a topic that has surfaced but has not been developed in prior publications. James suggests apparent “concessions to derivation” in Rohlfs’s work, including assimilation of Moorish, medieval English, and Oriental motifs. He also acknowledges previously made connections between Rohlfs’s work and that of architect Louis Sullivan and designer Edward Colonna but asserts them to have been unlikely; rather, James argues, Rohlfs drew on “ideas absorbed over a lifetime,” which manifested themselves in a fresh and unique manner in his work. James also refutes the connection of the furniture to the mission (or arts and crafts) style; Rohlfs himself claimed to prefer “my own style (not ‘Mission’)” (p. 44). James contends that “‘the product of natural ideas’ aptly summarizes Rohlfs’ work, as nature was the primary inspiration for his craft.” He supports this assertion with a thorough discussion of Rohlfs’s “reverence for wood grain” as manifested in the arresting carved embellishment found on the furniture.

Although Rohlfs’s work illustrates a persuasive naturalistic inspiration, combined with some of the aforementioned aesthetics, James too readily accepts Rohlfs’s assertion that “natural ideas” and his own creative genius were the sources of his designs. James easily dismisses other potential effects, noting that “it is tempting to speculate on the possible influences and connections among the multitude of artists and craftsmen . . . [but] it is difficult to distinguish casual threads from a collective exchange and merging of ideas” (p. 44). Yet with such a great quantity of artistic activity in upstate New York, combined with Rohlfs’s design training, New York City upbringing, and extensive European travels a decade earlier, it seems implausible that he could have worked so free of other influences.

In the introduction, James expresses his intent to place Rohlfs in the context of the arts and crafts movement, but by arguing so persuasively that Rohlfs’s work is difficult to categorize, he undermines this goal. James maintains, “Although some of Rohlfs’ work does resemble the Mission style, the majority of his furniture speaks for itself in disputing that connection” (p. 44). He contends that Rohlfs’s work may be more appropriately “cited as an American expression of L’Art Nouveau, or . . . a hybrid of that style and American Arts and Crafts” (p. 44). He offers no support for these claims by references to individual works, however, and although the entire book is well illustrated with photographs of the period and the furniture, at no time does the text cite specific images. It leaves the interpretation of the works solely to the reader. References to Rohlfs’s house are in the text, for example, but James does not discuss the specific images.

James claims in the introduction that Rohlfs’s furniture relates to “the art furniture of today” and that he hopes greater understanding of Rohlfs’s life and craft “will establish his place in the Arts and Crafts Movement.” Unfortunately, the book leaves both tasks undone. James discusses Rohlfs’s philosophy in the context of the arts and crafts movement, noting, for example, that Rohlfs “identified himself with the arts and crafts philosophy of the time” and that “his ideas strongly parallel those of John Ruskin.” Readers would have been given a deeper understanding of Rohlfs’s position in the movement, however, if James had incorporated this discussion into the text and had compared Rohlfs’s work and philosophy with that of his arts and crafts colleagues integral to the thesis. Further, Rohlfs explained that he was not a reformer, yet his speeches to arts and crafts societies included in the appendixes strongly promote the rhetoric of the movement. He also adamantly distinguished his work from the mission style, yet later we learn that he drew on the aesthetics of the arts and crafts movement for the interior design of his own home. According to the introduction of the book, Rohlfs’s “ideas, closely aligned with English Arts and Crafts principles, evolved over time” (p.10). To what extent Rohlfs influenced other reformers or designers, and to what degree he was influenced by the English or American stylistic vocabulary of the movement (in the use, for example, of natural materials and exposed joinery), are not completely addressed.

Despite these limitations, Drama in Design offers ample new information on the art and life of Charles Rohlfs. It is well presented, thoroughly researched, and abundantly illustrated. James’s efforts represent the advancing scholarship initiated by earlier ground-breaking exhibitions and catalogues. This study should certainly help bring to light additional examples of Rohlfs’s work. More importantly, however, James’s text makes an enigmatic character, his arts, and his philosophy more accessible to a general audience through a judicious balance of personal information and art historical research.

Anna Tobin D’Ambrosio
Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute

American Furniture 1995

  • [1]

    Previously published information on Rohlfs includes: Robert Judson Clark, ed., The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1916 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 28–31; Wendy Kaplan, “The Art that is Life”: The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1875–1920 (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1987); Coy Ludwig, The Arts and Crafts Movement in New York State: 1890–1920s (Hamilton, N.Y.: Gallery Association of New York State, 1983). See also Michael L. James, “The Philosophy of Charles Rohlfs: An Introduction,” Arts and Crafts Quarterly 1, no. 3 (April 1987): 14–18; Michael L. James, “Charles Rohlfs and the ‘Dignity of Labor,’” in The Substance of Style: New Perspectives on the American Arts and Crafts Movement (Winterthur, Del.: Winterthur Museum, forthcoming).

  • [2]
    James attained access to the collection of Rosamond Rohlfs Zetterholm, Charles Rohlfs’s granddaughter, which contains archival papers and photographs. This collection was James’s primary source.