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Metropolitan Museum Displays Innovative Furniture by American Designer Charles Rohlfs

Praised by the international press and exhibited throughout the United States and Europe at the turn of the 20th century, the American furniture designer Charles Rohlfs (1853–1936) created innovative works that combined elements of Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, and proto-modernism in surprising and original ways. In a meteoric career that barely spanned one decade, he designed only a few hundred works—many of them for his own home. While Rohlfs’s forms were too eccentric for the commercial market of his time, he achieved recognition as a unique voice and seminal force in the history of American art furniture.

Opening October 19 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art—the final stop in a five-city tour—the exhibition The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs examines the designer’s singular style through 50 examples of furniture and related objects. Many of the works descended in his family; others are on loan from museums and private collections. The presentation at the Metropolitan will include several unusual works from private collections in the New York area that have not been displayed previously. Rare printed advertising cards and pamphlets for Rohlfs’s work—all from the collection of the Metropolitan—will also be shown.

The exhibition explores Rohlfs’s life and career, including the activities of his wife, the artist and successful mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green; the far-ranging sources of his idiosyncratic motifs; his commissioned interiors; his efforts at self-promotion and marketing; and his attempts to define a conceptual framework for his artistic endeavor.

Born in Brooklyn in 1853 to a German émigré cabinetmaker, Charles Rohlfs studied drafting and design at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. He earned a living as a designer of cast-iron stoves, was a patternmaker for foundries, and also—with less success—pursued a career as an actor. He married Anna Katharine Green in 1884, and the couple moved to Buffalo in 1887. New research shows that Rohlfs’s early experiments with furniture design—which furnished the couple’s home—involved close collaboration between husband and wife. When neighbors and guests asked Rohlfs to make furniture for them as well, the hobby became a business. He set up a workshop with a few freelance carvers and, by the 1890s, was promoting himself as a designer of “artistic furniture.” Rohlfs produced furniture on commission for the great lodges of several wealthy patrons in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York; received critical acclaim for work he submitted to international exhibitions such as the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1902 Turin International Exposition of Modern Art; and signed a distribution contract with the Chicago department store Marshall Field & Company. Despite these successes, his workshop was in existence for only a few years. As mass-produced furniture became readily available and styles changed, Rohlfs’s eccentric ideas did not attract enough of a following to sustain the business. He all but abandoned cabinetry and became active in civic affairs.

Made of oak stained a matte brown, Rohlfs’s furniture was embellished primarily by means of elaborate carving. Although the designer denied any connection to a particular movement or style, his inventive silhouettes and imaginative carving combined many different sources, from the abstract naturalism of Art Nouveau to the bold shapes and materials characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement. His virtuosic carving recalled Chinese and Japanese forms and highly stylized renditions of nature. He claimed that his individual inspiration came from the natural grain of oak and his own creative imagination. As an example, the carving on one desk chair resembles the cellular structure of oak as seen through a microscope. Other unusual works include a table with legs at the mid-point of each side (rather than at the corners), numerous three-legged chairs with sculptural or filigreed arm- and backrests, and a tapered clock.

Publication and Related Programs
A fully illustrated catalogue by Joseph Cunningham, published by Yale University Press in association with American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, will be available for purchase in the Museum’s bookshops ($65 hardcover; $50 paperback).

Education programs organized in conjunction with the exhibition include a Sunday at the Met lecture program on December 5, gallery talks and documentary films for general audiences, and gallery conversations for teens (ages 11–14 and 15–18), all of which are free with Museum admission.

The exhibition was organized by Joseph Cunningham, curatorial director of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. At the Metropolitan, the exhibition is organized by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts. Exhibition design is by Michael Batista, Exhibition Design Manager; graphics are by Emil Micha, Senior Graphic Design Manager; and lighting is by Clint Ross Coller and Richard Lichte, Lighting Design Managers, all of the Museum’s Design Department. Prior to its showing at the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition was on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Dallas Museum of Art, Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh), and The Huntington Library (San Marino, California).

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