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Innovative Furniture At the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Rare Look at the Works of Charles Rohlfs

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The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, is a jewel-like exhibition on its last stop of a five-city tour offering an unusual opportunity to examine the influence of an American original both in the context of the vastly popular Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements at the turn of the 20th century and as a trajectory to 21st century contemporary furniture design. Charles Rohfls’s (1853-1936) abstract furniture, virtuosic carvings and imaginative silhouettes relating to the naturalism of Art Nouveau styling, was a unique force who contributed to a new chapter in the history of American furniture.

As an individualist visionary, Rohlfs resisted labels and used innovation to create inventive furniture. He developed an international reputation for his sophisticated design vocabulary, use of Quarter Sawn White Oak stained matte brown, fully expressed joinery and decorative patterns embellished primarily by means of carving elaborate carvings. Rohfls’s restless intelligence and skilled craftsmanship lead him to experiment and incorporate a wide range of international design elements from Islam, Japan, China as well as Europe’s Renaissance and medieval periods.

Many works on display – 50 in all – descend from his family; others are on loan from museum and private collections. The presentation at the Metropolitan includes several unusual pieces new to the exhibition that include rare printed advertising cards and pamphlets from the Museum’s collection.

A number of exotic pieces are eye-catching, but two are exemplary – an abstract lamp that defies categorization and an imaginative chair with elaborate fretwork and flowery Art Nouveau design patterns, that unwittingly, has resurfaced with a 21st century sensibility.

“The Lamp” (ca. 1904), top left, is an out-of-the-box functional object that brilliantly combines form and ornament. Constructed from sheets of hammered copper and decorated with coils of tubular metal, the kappa shells from China are supported by four copper arms is atypical of the usual clean lines, simple dark, hammered brass patina markings of the Arts and Crafts movement.

A charming “4 Corner Chair” (1898-1899), above left, carved from oak with elaborate fretwork above and below the seat was intended to fit under a specially designed table where the legs were in the idle leaving the corners free. This unique style, in variation, can be seen in the late sculptor’s Donald Judd’s Corner Chair while whiplash curves and Art Nouveau naturalism is predominant in Vitra’s trendsetting Vegetal designed by the forward thinking French brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec.

A resident of Buffalo, Rohlfs married Anna Katharine Green, a mystery book author who was his close collaborator in early experiments with furniture design that subsequently decorated their home. Although he received commissions from wealthy patrons, gained international attention, and signed a distribution deal with the Chicago department store Marshall Field, these successes were short-lived. As mass production became readily available and with the demise of the Art Nouveau style on the eve of WWI, Rohlfs closed his studio and moved on to become a civic leader.

Charles Rohlfs’s designs stand along side his better-known contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Gustav Stickley, and while fame, and (some) fortune were elusive, a few years ago a Rohlfs chair sold for $200,000 to a private collector.

The Metropolitan has organized lectures, gallery talks, including with sculptor and artistic furniture designer Wendell Castle on December 5th, plus documentary films (all free to the public). Detailed information is available from www.metmusuem.org/tickets, or, call 212-570-3949. The exhibition is a treat for devotees and scholars of furniture so do catch it while its on view through Janaury 23, 2011.

Lamp from the Rohlfs Home, ca. 1903
Copper, brass, and kappa shell; replacement glass
23–1/4 x 15–7/8 diam. in.
Private CollectionPhoto: Gavin Ashworth, © American Decorative Art
1900 Foundation

Corner Chair, 1898–99
Oak
28–7/8 x 19 x 19 in.
Dallas Museum of Art, Promised Gift of American Decorative Art 1900
Foundation in honor of Joseph Cunningham
Photo: Dallas Museum of Art

Plant Stand, 1903
Oak, copper, and brass
50–7/8 x 19–3/8 in.
Private Collection
Photo: Gavin Ashworth, © American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation

Coal Hod, 1901, Opening Photo
Oak and copper
15 x 30–1/2 x 29–1/2 in.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Max Palevsky and Jodie Evans
Photo: Los Angeles Museum of Art

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