Charles Rohlfs, the Aesthetic Movement and the Roots of his Artistic Furniture

Sarah Fayen, Chipstone Foundation

Tuesday, March 10, 2009Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum

Sarah Fayen will help us unravel the enigma that is Charles Rohlfs’ role in America’s Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Rohlfs was the front man of a small, turn-of-the-century shop in Buffalo that produced dark oak furniture with a matte finish and generally ahistorical ornament, much like other contemporary, progressive furniture. Rohlfs’ designs, however, stand out because of their bold forms, animated silhouettes, and expressive carving, inspired by Art Nouveau and other European styles, as well as Japanese and Islamic traditions. These eclectic design influences on Rohlfs’ work simultaneously charm and defy categorization.

Sarah Fayen’s upcoming exhibit, “The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs,” is the first major museum exhibit to interpret Rohlfs’ life and work. Rohlfs did not associate himself with any particular style or artistic movement. He simply referred to his work as “artistic furniture” or the “Rohlfs style.” These phrases emphasize the singularity of Rohlfs’ own artistic vision, an impulse that links him to the Aesthetic movement, which spread the ideal of “art for art’s own sake” throughout England and America in the late 19th century.

Charles Rohlfs trained at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, one of America’s early schools for reformist art education. He became a patternmaker and, later, a designer for industrial, cast-iron stove manufacturers in the New York area, then Buffalo. In these jobs, Rohlfs learned woodworking, carving, general engineering skills and the principles of artistic design.

Rohlfs and his wife, mystery novelist Anna Katharine Green, were influenced by the 1882 arrival in New York of actor and critic Oscar Wilde to create a multi-faceted artistic lifestyle. Their endeavors included writing, stage acting and interior decoration in keeping with the popular “house beautiful” movement. Rohlfs first began making furniture as a hobby to create unique designs that would reflect his dedication to individual expression. In his mid-forties, Rohlfs discovered the perfect outlet for his artistic impulses when he redirected this knowledge and experience toward furniture-making around 1897.

Rohlfs’ combined his Aesthetic movement for individual expression with early 20th century manufacturing trends. Rustic-looking plugs covered the screws that held together his chairs, tables and chests of drawers (a technique also utilized by Greene & Greene) giving his furniture a hand-made look, while permitting him to concentrate on the graphic power of his overall designs. A contemporary critic described the graphic power of Rohlfs’ unusually distinctive outlines and inimitable carving as being “in a class by itself.”

Sarah Fayen graduated from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. Her senior essay was “The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair: Reviving the Kitchen as the Heart of the Home.” Her internships in Washington, D.C. were at the Smithsonian Institution, Office for Architectural History and Historic Preservation; Decatur House; and the National Building Museum. Her Winterthur thesis was “Tilt-top Tables: Commodities in Eighteenth-century America.” Following her graduation from the Winterthur program, she has been at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee as Charles F. Hummel Fellow (2002-2004), assistant curator (2004-2007) and curator (2007-present).

At the Milwaukee Art Museum, Ms Fayen co-curated “Tea Table Coffee Table” and curated “Enter the Dragon: The Beginnings of English Chinoiserie, 1680-1710,” “Going out of Style: 400 Years of Changing Tastes in Furniture” and “The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs.” Her publications include contributions to American Furniture 2003, “Tilt-Top Tables and Eighteenth-Century Consumerism”; Ceramics in America 2005, “Playful Potting; A Miniature Tin-Glazed Earthenware Chair”; and Ceramics in America 2010, “The Chinese Scholar Pattern: Style, Merchant Identity, and the English Imagination in Late Seventeenth-Century Tin-Glazed Earthenware.”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Support your movement, Arts and Crafts or Aesthetic, by bringing pottery, glass, silver, copper, jewelry, fabric, rattan, painting or print. We’ll make room for furniture.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.