In group exhibitions of the arts and crafts movement, Charles Rohlfs' furniture stands out. It is strange, not tasteful, as we expect arts and crafts furniture to be. Something about Rohlfs channels the Shaker aesthetic. He is outsider-weird with an homespun delight in nutty invention. Rohlfs' furniture is as fussy as the Shakers' is not. It's hard to say whether that makes it less modern or more. Rohlfs recalls surrealist objects (top, a 1903 Plant Stand) and seemingly deconstructs ornament, enough to appear postmodern now. There is a touch of Philippe Starck, a hint of S&M fetish.
"The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs," now at the Huntington's Boone Gallery, is a carefully edited show of forty-some of Rohlfs' best pieces. If nothing else, Rohlfs is proof that American lives have second acts. The son of a Brooklyn cabinetmaker, he trained in design and juggled careers as a cast-iron stove designer and an actor. He became the cub to Anna Katherine Green's cougar. Green, a pioneering writer of mystery fiction, became rich and famous. Her royalties supported Rohlfs' foray into furniture design, a critical success that never paid the bills. It appears furthermore that Green contributed to some of her husband's designs. After ten years of making furniture for their Buffalo home — and not selling much to anyone else — Rohlfs hung up his saw. His so-called career had lasted about ten years. In quitting at the peak of his powers (as we see things now), he bears comparison to Victorian photographer Roger Fenton.
What Rohlfs did with the rest of his life is sketchy. His CV reads like that of an investment banker's wife. He was said to have been a community leader and social activist in Buffalo, who secured a patent for a gavel used by the Rotarians. Rohlfs died in 1936, the year after his celebrated wife. He was then considered to be the widower of a literary lion whose star was fading. Few could have guessed that it would be Rohlfs who would be getting love in the 21st century (the tour ends in New York, at the Met), while Green would be obscure even to aficionados of mystery fiction.
One might easily suppose that Rohlfs represents the late, mannerist death agonies of the arts and crafts movement. Not all all. He was early in the game for an American. Gustav Stickley credited Rohlfs as an influence, and of course Stickley achieved the commercial success that eluded Rohlfs. Consequently, much of Rohlfs' furniture descended in the family. It has only lately entered museum collections. The late Max Palevsky recognized Rohlfs' genius and donated several key pieces to LACMA. Two are in the show, one an ambulatory coal bucket (above). Other objects on view were funneled through the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, which is distributing them to museums nationwide. The Foundation has promised a Rocking Chair to the Huntington, below right.
As a couple, Charles-Anna was a pop culture powerhouse. The Huntington supplies a vitrine of Anna Katherine Green's early editions from its library collection. One of Green's characters was the prototype for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and another for Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Green's novels focus on scientific forensics (anticipating both Sherlock Holmes and CSI). Rohlfs too was fascinated by microscopy, and it inspired one of his most prescient chairs (below, a promised gift to the Metropolitan Museum). The backrest is believed to be based on the cell structure of oak, the material it's made from.