A landmark exhibition of furniture and decorative art by the protean American craftsman and designer Charles Rohlfs opens at the Dallas Museum of Art on September 20, 2009, and will remain on view through January 13, 2010, in the Museum’s Chilton I Gallery
Based on the newly discovered Rohlfs family archives and period sources, the exhibition brings together over forty examples of furniture and decorative works from ten museums and several private collections. Rohlfs’ “‘artistic furniture’ had no precedents or peers, only imitators,” wrote the New York Times. “His designs [are] so primitive yet so new and modern that they excite wonder.”
Organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum, where it premiered in June, the Chipstone Foundation and American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, the exhibition is curated by Joseph Cunningham; the associate curator is Sarah Fayen, curator at the Chipstone Foundation. The Dallas presentation is curated by Kevin W. Tucker, The Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design.
With roots in the Aesthetic movement and an art-for-art’s-sake sensibility, Rohlfs’ style was related to the abstract naturalism of Art Nouveau, but drew on motifs from Asian and Moorish to English and Germanic designs. In turn, his work both influenced and reflected characteristics of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the twentieth century. Rohlfs preferred the terms “Artistic Furniture” or “The Rohlfs Style,” which identified his designs not as part of a specific style or movement but, rather, as expressive art made by a single individual.
Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936), the son of a cabinetmaker who worked for piano companies in Brooklyn, trained in drafting and design at the Cooper Union in New York City. A successful patternmaker and, subsequently, designer of cast-iron stoves, Rohlfs changed his Brooklyn City Directory listing from “patternmaker” to “actor” in 1881 and married the novelist Anna Katharine Green in 1884. The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs for the first time credits Green as a collaborator in the artist’s work.
Rohlfs held several jobs with traveling theater companies, playing roles in different cities around the country. He was already in his mid-forties when he started to make furniture professionally, around 1897. Before his death in 1936, Rohlfs had earned entry into the Royal Society of Arts in London, sold his furniture through Marshall Field & Co., and exhibited at international exhibitions in the U.S. and in Europe. His obituary was published in the New York Times.
Featuring the finest works of Charles Rohlfs’ career as a furniture maker, the exhibition of approximately forty-five objects is organized chronologically, beginning with his earliest known personal works from about 1888. Lenders include the Dallas Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and several others.
Featured in the exhibition is the Dallas Museum of Art’s richly carved rotating desk of about 1899, one of the designer’s most inventive and whimsical examples of household furniture. Also included is a neatly pierced corner chair from the same year, intended as a component of a compact table and chair set. This work, with its sinuous fretwork design, is a promised gift to the Dallas Museum of Art of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in honor of Joseph Cunningham.
After Dallas, the exhibition continues its five-city national tour to the Carnegie Museum of Art (January 30–April 25, 2010); the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens (May 22–September 6, 2010); and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 19, 2010–January 23, 2011).
Image: Charles Rohlfs (American, 1853-1936), Fall-Front Rotating Desk, ca. 1899 (detail). Oak and metal, 56 1/2 x 25 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches. Dallas Museum of Art, anonymous gift. Photo © Dallas Museum of Art