ARTS AND CRAFTS DESIGNER ROHLFS FOCAL POINT OF WEEKLY LIVEAUCTIONTALK.COM COLUMN
Charles Rohlfs in his Buffalo, New York, workshop circa 1902. Photo courtesy of Don Treadway.
In an attic above a bicycle shop in Buffalo, New York, Charles Rohlfs designed arts and crafts furniture at the turn-of-the-century. With an actor’s imposing voice he told visiting reporters one day his designs were matchless. He had no peers’ only imitators.
Rohlfs was almost as skilled at self- promotion as he was furniture design and building.
He was also right about his work. He stood firm in his design vision and ultimately it paid off.
There was something about Rohlfs’s furniture that made people stop and take a second look. Along with the arts and crafts practice of chamfering, dovetailing, faceting and mortise-and-tenon joints, Rohlfs introduced something new.
His hand carved furniture with its cut-out fretwork, straight lines, Gothic lettering and flowery art nouveau motifs was atypical. He looked more to the English Arts and Crafts style in his design. What resulted was furniture with Moorish, Scandinavian and Gothic nuances.
“Never have art and utility been joined more skillfully than in these chairs and tables and desks,” said a reporter from The Buffalo Daily Courier.
It was the spirit of today blended with the poetry of the medieval ages. That’s how Rohlfs described it. A craftsman in the best sense of the word, his attention to design detail in building furniture was, in fact, matchless.
Like stone sculpture Rohlfs’s small tables, elongated chairs, desks, storage chests, cabinets, sideboards, and long-case clocks were one of a kind pieces. He liked to use quarter-sawn white oak in his building. With their rich, dark patina each piece was innovative. Each piece reflected Rohlfs’s singular sense of style.
He showed his furniture at the 1902 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art in Turin. It brought him international attention including a commission from Buckingham Palace. Stories about his work also appeared in Puritan Magazine and House Beautiful. Marshall Fields Department Store held an exhibition of his work in 1900 as well.
Rohlfs’s furniture design and building career was brief. In business for less than 10 years he produced no more than a few hundred pieces of furniture. So his work is rare.
He began his career not as a furniture maker but as an actor. He appeared in small parts in Shakespearean dramas with actors like Edwin Booth. He married crime novelist Anna Katharine Green in 1884. It was her father, a lawyer, who made him give up acting for a “responsible” profession. Green was the author of the bestseller The Leavenworth Case.
Rohlfs’s learned to carve wooden forms working for a cast-iron foundry. The forms were used to make fancy designs on stoves and appliances. He held patents for some of his innovations and obviously used what he learned in creating his own furniture.
He was one of the most ground-breaking art and crafts designers and furniture makers of his era. Rohlfs’s furniture will often bear the maker’s mark of an “R” and the date. The mark is usually branded or burned with a hot iron on the surface of the wood.
One Dec, 7, Treadway/Toomey Galleries, featured several pieces of Rohlfs’s furniture in its 20th Century Art & Design auction in Oak Park, Ill. Here are some current values.
Library Table; rectangular top over blind drawer; original finish; unsigned; 36 inches by 30 ½ inches; $2,400.
Drop-leaf Table; narrow form opens to octagonal top; refinished; signed; 22 inches by 26 inches; $2,760.
Bellows; leather; finely carved form signed and dated 1902; original finish; original brass nozzle; 33 inches by 6.5 inches; $3,900.
Table; trefoil top with pierced and carved design; refinished; unsigned; 19 inches high; $5,700.
Chair; iconic form with intricate carved and pierced design at back with organic motif; original finish; signed; 57 ½ inches high; $54,000.
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