American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation
Charles Rohlfs (1853-1936) called his unprecedented designs “artistic furniture.” A protean designer, actor, and furniture-maker dedicated to the primacy of individual expression, Rohlfs created unusually inventive forms and imaginative carving, which reflected the myriad aesthetic influences circulating at the turn of the twentieth century. With roots in the Aesthetic Movement, Rohlfs’ style was related to the abstract naturalism of Art Nouveau styling, but drew on precedents from Asian and Moorish to English and Germanic designs. In turn, his work was influential on the pared-down oak forms that became hallmarks of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs—the first major exhibition of Rohlfs’s work—presented over 40 pieces of his best surviving furniture and decorative objects. It explored his success and recognition both in Europe and America and traced his influence on other early twentieth-century furniture designers. The exhibition and book project was the product of an unconventional collaboration between three institutions dedicated to innovative presentation of decorative art and design: American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, Chipstone Foundation and Milwaukee Art Museum.
In October 2008, Yale University Press, in association with ADA1900 Foundation, published
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, authored by Exhibition Curator Joseph Cunningham with contributions by Sarah Fayen (curator at the Chipstone Foundation and curator of decorative art at the Milwaukee Art Museum) and Bruce Barnes. Much of the new research is based on archival materials recently given by Rohlfs’s great granddaughter, Liza Ortman, to the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library.
Charles Rohlfs’s furniture-making was the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to art, design, and theater. Trained in socially progressive artistic ideals at The Cooper Union, Rohlfs went on to design decorative cast-iron stoves for some of the largest industrial foundries in the country, while pursuing a career as a stage actor. Rohlfs married the famous mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green, and together they began furnishing a home steeped in the artistic ideals of the late nineteenth-century House Beautiful movement. This exhibition and book project was the first to explore Anna Katharine Green’s contribution to the Rohlfs furniture enterprise. In creating furnishings that expresses their individual tastes, Rohlfs found an outlet that combined his skills in design, carving, and dramatic salesmanship.
Although all major studies of the American Arts and Crafts movement, and some of Art Nouveau, have included his furniture, Rohlfs denied connection to any particular style and preferred to call his work “The Rohlfs Style” or simply “artistic furniture.” This unabashed dedication to his own creative vision makes Rohlfs’s work difficult to categorize and suggests the influence of late nineteenth-century “art for art’s sake” ideologies. Although his furniture features the dark matte oak that would become widely popular as “Mission Style,” Rohlfs was too much of a businessman to embrace the socialist tendencies of William Morris or the utopian visions of his own regional competitors, the Roycroft Shops. His designs directly influenced Gustav Stickley’s popular Craftsman Furniture, but Rohlfs’s own commercial success was limited. Rohlfs’s unconventional career and work mark him as among the more imaginative design figures of his time. His ambitious chairs, case furniture, and commissioned interiors reveal earnest dedication to his individual artistic vision. Their imaginative curves, bold forms, and fluid carved decoration derive from a wide array of international aesthetic influences and set him apart from his contemporaries.
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs has received three prestigious book awards:
the Charles F. Montgomery Prize from the Decorative Arts Society,
the Henry Allen Moe Prize from the New York State Historical Association, and
the Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society in America.
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Milwaukee Art Museum
June - August 2009
Dallas Museum of Art
September - December 2009
Carnegie Museum of Art
January - April 2010
Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
May - September 2010
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 2010 - January 2011
This exhibition was organized by the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, Chipstone Foundation and Milwaukee Art Museum.
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