Review by Beverly K. Brandt
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs

Joseph Cunningham. The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs. New York: American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. xxi + 283 pp.; 321 color illus., 16 bw illus., appendix, bibliography, index. $65.00.

In the literature of the American arts and crafts movement, the work of Charles Rohlfs has generally appeared as an afterthought. Robert Judson Clark mentioned Rohlfs only briefly in his seminal exhibition catalogue, The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876–1918 (Princeton, 1972), and subsequent scholars of the movement—Leslie Greene Bowman, Wendy Kaplan, Janet Kardon, to name just a few—devoted minimal pages to Rohlfs in their important publications of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. Yet Rohlfs’s quirky furniture and metalwork now resides, as Bruce Barnes indicates in his foreword to this handsome new exhibition catalogue, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, in “almost every major American museum that collects American decorative art from the period around 1900” (p. xvi). Thus, this in-depth study by independent scholar Joseph Cunningham is long overdue and will fill a gap in the libraries of scholars, curators, and collectors who share a fascination with Rohlfs’s idiosyncratic vision.

That vision—which Rohlfs himself never fully articulated—has made his work hard to categorize and may explain why scholars for the past three decades have tended to gloss over his contribution to American craft. Though arising out of the aesthetic movement, Rohlfs was not mentioned in the exhaustive publication that spurred interest in that subject, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986). And, though parallels between Rohlfs’s work and art nouveau abound, Rohlfs does not figure in Paul Greenhalgh’s recent and otherwise definitive Art Nouveau, 1890–1914 (Abrams, 2000). Even David Cathers, writing in the first edition of his important primer (1981) on arts and crafts furniture makers in New York State, did not mention Rohlfs, who resided in Buffalo. A designer and craftsperson, Rohlfs drew on eclectic contemporary and historic sources, but he eschewed outright associations with the arts and crafts movement generally and the mission style more specifically. In short, Rohlfs defied pigeonholing.

Providing a comprehensive overview of this enigmatic man’s life and work is thus the goal of The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs. An exhibition catalogue accompanying shows held at the Milwaukee Art Museum and four other institutions between June 2009 and January 2011, the book includes gorgeous nine-by-twelve-inch color details along with smaller black-and-white, sepia, and color images. In his foreword Barnes justifies inclusion of such luxurious images: “this book covers the life of Rohlfs in roughly chronological order, but the focus is on the objects he designed, rather than his life and times” (p. xvi). Barnes, who edited the book, provides an executive summary of its contents, highlights some of Rohlfs’s biographical background, acknowledges supporters of and contributors to the traveling exhibition, and provides background on the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, of which Barnes is founder and president. As a foremost Rohlfs connoisseur, Barnes discusses his motivations for both collecting and promoting this “complex and exciting” (p. xvii) work.

In the acknowledgments section that follows, Cunningham expands on Barnes’s comments while explaining his scholarly approach, that is, making himself “aware of the known examples of [Rohlfs’s] works,” which required “advertising in relevant publications and reaching out to more than a hundred dealers, collectors, curators, and scholars who are active or knowledgeable in this field” (p. xxi). Serious collectors will appreciate the thoroughness with which Cunningham applies this firsthand exposure to Rohlfs’s works.

Sarah Fayen, assistant curator of the Chipstone Foundation and adjunct assistant curator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, provides a balanced introduction that addresses Rohlfs’s background (son of a piano cabinetmaker), education and training (night courses at the Cooper Union), and early work as a professional pattern maker (for iron foundries and stove manufacturers). She considers his marriage to his older and more successful novelist wife, Anna Katherine Green, as well as his amateur acting career. She ponders his evolution from what was, essentially, an early industrial designer into a maker of “artistic furniture,” exploring his emerging design philosophy, his sense of self, and his collaborative relationship with his talented wife and partner. Fayen attributes Oscar Wilde’s 1882 appearance in New York to Rohlfs’s recognition of an affinity between, as she aptly puts it, “drama on the stage and drama in design” (p. 6). Because of evident gaps in the Rohlfs archives, Fayen often speculates, but she draws conclusions that seem logical and well grounded.

Fayen’s introduction provides a satisfying overview of topics into which Cunningham delves at greater depth, but it also raises numerous questions. What was the background of the aesthetic movement in Buffalo? How did aestheticism come to that city and how did the Rohlfses become involved with the “artistic” set? What role did vernacular forms—the turned chair, the trestle table, the settle bench—play in Rohlfs’s oeuvre? Given Rohlfs’s fascination with cast metal in his early foundry work, why does none of it appear in his later furniture or metalwork? And, where did he learn to forge metal by hand? How does Rohlfs’s acceptance of what Fayen terms “faux-honest construction” (p. 17) justify his dedication to design reform, which prided itself on such concepts as integrity, sincerity, and directness? Finally, how did Rohlfs’s amateur acting career connect to, say, the Little Theater movement that was an important part of reformist organizations including the Detroit Society of Arts & Crafts?

Cunningham’s eleven chapters that follow embrace the macrocosm of Rohlfs’s life and the microcosm of Rohlfs’s work. Chapter 1 explores Charles’s and Anna Katherine’s early biographies up through the first years of their marriage. Chapter 3 covers their European grand tour in 1890 and, after their return to the United States, the dramatization of Anna Katherine’s first novel, The Leavenworth Case (1878), into a stage play in which Charles appeared as the villain. The first part of chapter 4 speculates on Rohlfs’s “transition, around 1897, from actor to cabinetmaker and wood-carver” (p. 65), describes his various work spaces, and his short-lived connection with Chicago retailer Marshall Field and Co. (1899–1901). Chapter 6 discusses Rohlfs’s emerging design philosophy as presented in articles, interviews, and lectures: “Rohlfs defined great design,” Cunningham informs us, “as useful, well planned, beautifully executed objects of decorative art imbued with spiritual power” (p. 107). The first part of chapter 8 considers critical assessment of Rohlfs’s work in the international design press and his participation in Buffalo’s “Pan-American Exposition” of 1901. Chapter 9 focuses on Rohlfs’s contributions to the “Exposition of Modern Decorative Art” held the following year in Turin, Italy, his growing international reputation, and his household milieu. Chapter 10 advances to the year 1904 (when Rohlfs significantly did not participate in the St. Louis world’s fair), chronicling his manufacturing of small household items—chafing dishes, candle stands, hanging shelves, and so forth—his foray into commissioned interiors for Adirondack camps and those in his own Norwood Avenue home. Chapter 11 explores the last decades of Rohlfs’s life in a Voyseyan home (newly built on Park Street), its interiors filled with his own works that he either desired to keep or was unable to sell, and his civic pursuits after he “ended his career as a furniture-maker” (p. 229) circa 1911.

The sociocultural background provided by these chapters helps put into context Rohlfs’s eccentric works. But, to reiterate Barnes’s statement in the foreword, the book’s focus is clearly “on the objects he designed, rather than his life and times.” As a result, these chapters raise more questions than they answer. Their descriptive nature often stops short of the critical analysis necessary to link the sociocultural background to Rohlfs’s design philosophy or aesthetic approach. Sometimes, Cunningham offers more information than we really need: is it essential, for example, to know the exact time that the Rohlfs family arrived at their hotel in Liverpool? At other times, he leaves us longing for a more substantive interpretation of the facts presented. A concluding paragraph, for example, summarizing the overarching implications of the grand tour on Rohlfs’s subsequent work would be a welcome addition. In light of Rohlfs’s Germanic heritage, the family’s extensive trip to Germany must have been especially meaningful.

This delving into Rohlfs’s sociocultural background again raises a variety of unanswered questions, some of which are conceptual. What, for example, did Rohlfs actually study at the Cooper Union? (It would be helpful to know more than just course titles.) What did he read, both at school and later in life? What tomes and periodicals filled Rohlfs’s personal library? (Interior photographs of his various homes clearly show overflowing bookcases.) Did he, for example, peruse Louis Sullivan’s The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896) or his later books? (This seems likely, considering Rohlfs’s proximity to Adler and Sullivan’s Guaranty Building [Buffalo, 1894–95] and his purported interest in Sullivan’s ornament.) How did the spiritual element that Cunningham perceives in Rohlfs’s work relate to the concept of “expression,” which design theorists and critics discussed and debated during this era?

Questions of a more technical or aesthetic nature include the following: for an individual labeled the “best draughtsman” (p. 183) in his classes at the Cooper Union, why did he take such a casual approach to sketches and working drawings during his career? Why did Rohlfs’s lighting fixtures rely on old technology, that is, candlepower, when other reformist designers on both sides of the Atlantic were exploiting the newer, cleaner electricity? Regarding Rohlfs’s approach to ornament: could the impressive Bed with Canopy (ca. 1900) owe its iconography to the so-called language of flowers, which was an obsession with decorative artists in the nineteenth century? Might images—see the Outline for Raised Panel—have any connection to the inkblots made famous by Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach (1884–1922)? And, might Rohlfs’s fascinating work process presage what contemporary author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed “flow,” or the psychology of optimal experience?

Cunningham devotes the remaining chapters (or parts thereof) to a loving analysis of the objects—furniture, clocks, vessels, luminaries—that emanated from Rohlfs’s studio and filled his home and those of his clients. These analyses are like extended catalogue entries turned into impassioned prose. Because Cunningham intersperses these descriptions with the broader, sociocultural sections, he forces the reader to shift from sweeping overview to focused detail and back again. This introduces variety as the reader moves from absorbing dry facts of Rohlfs’s life to appreciating sensual descriptions of form and ornament, wood grain and surface finish, joints and fittings. The book might have been improved, though, both conceptually and stylistically, by combining “like” material with “like” and incorporating smoother transitions.

Doubtless, this is a beautiful tome, which may be one reason that the Decorative Arts Society (DAS) awarded it the Charles F. Montgomery Prize for 2008. Its large format, exquisite photographs, careful layout, and ample white space are visually striking. Scholars may lament, however, the delicate sans serif font, which is difficult to read, the minuscule superscript numbers indicating notes, the placement of the notes at the volume’s end, and the notes’ odd, abbreviated format, requiring simultaneous perusal of the one-page bibliography. In view of the ample white space that borders most pages, endnotes could have appeared as marginalia, along with captions. This would have drawn attention to some of the truly obscure sources that Cunningham took the trouble to locate and consult. The passages devoted to object analysis raise a further set of questions: what is the link between Rohlfs’s ornament and conventionalized motifs from the past that seem to abound in his work, such as the rinceau, the paired reverse-curve, the lamb’s-tongue molding, auricular elements, the ogival, and the crocket, to name just a few? Similarly, what is the connection between his high-backed chair forms and, say, the caquetoire of the French Renaissance? Did Rohlfs consciously evoke the thong-strung seats of the ancient Greek klismos or the monopodia supports seen in late-renaissance/mannerist pattern books? What was Rohlfs’s awareness of patent furniture—such as the revolving bookcase form—which surely must have influenced some of his not-always-successful experiments in furniture engineering and invention?

It is a credit to its authors that The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs inspires such query and debate. Long after the accompanying exhibition has been dismantled, this catalogue will continue to attract a wide range of readers. A proof of its merit will be if it inspires a new generation of Rohlfs scholars and collectors to delve further into the conceptual, aesthetic, and technical underpinnings of his curious work.


Beverly K. Brandt
Herberger Institute for Design & the Arts
Arizona State University

American Furniture 2010