Interview: Illuminating Rohlfs' World @ The MAM

Jun. 1, 2009
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Curator Joseph Cunningham, from the American Decorative Arts 1900 Foundation, and Adjunct Assistant Curator for the Milwaukee Art Museum, Sarah Fayen, cooperated with The Chipstone Foundation to organize and plan "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs". Finally opening June 6 after four years of planning, a majority of his work was uncovered with the 1971 discovery by Robert Judson Clark in the estate of the artist's son, Roland Rohlfs. The only surviving child of Charles Rohlfs and Anna Katherine Green (their son Sterling died in a plane crash and daughter Rosamund lived only through childhood), Charles left his creative legacy to Roland. Because Charles Rohlfs defied mainstream design movements at the beginning of the 1900's, a majority of his pieces remained in his own home and collection. Cunningham authored the book by the same name that details the retrospective, the first major museum exhibition of his work, and will give several guest gallery talks at the MAM to illuminate Rohlfs' designs and why they've finally come into museum light. He answers only a few questions for the moment.

Q: What characteristics define Rohlfs' work?

A: Rohlfs had great skill as an artisan, at times working with 2-3 additional craftsmen in his workshop, although because his furniture skirted clear definition, he had difficulty mass marketing it. But Rohlfs' work uses one, pierce work that creates dramatic silhouettes, two, carving, and three combining both techniques. These characteristics play to shadow and light.

Q: What pieces did he construct, were these designs used on?
A: Rohlf's constructed many chairs⎯they were commonly used and a blank slate. They appear more sculptural and sometimes the proposed use as incidental. But he also designed case pieces, secretaries, tall case clocks and cabinets. Also in the exhibit, we are fortunate that two of his table lamps, of only two in the world, feature lighting features represented by the time, gas and electric. Most of his pieces were constructed from oak, chestnut and mahogany, but his lamps use Capiz shell, sometimes washed with gold that has worn away.

Q: What light is shed on modernism in this "American Originals" exhibit?

A; Both exhibits share several things. One, experimentation in a new century with new art. Two, Re-approaching traditional forms in a non-traditional way. Three, innovation. From design, construction, structure in Rohlfs' furniture, subject matter in the painting. Four, more creativity, eclecticism, more radical examples in American design. Five, exotic blends of international influences. One of Rohlfs chairs actually uses the cellular structure of oak as a design for piercing ornamentation, giving it a Far Eastern appeal. You might miss this unless you read the notes from his writings.

Q: What made Rohlfs' designs so extraordinary?

A: They skirt definition. His wife's income as a mystery writer freed him to do his experimental furniture, "artistic furniture' as he called his creations from his own writings, his own words. The very artistic community they lived in at the time, Buffalo, New York, and included his wife as a writer, accepted and encouraged him. She even did some design and they worked on pieces together. Without this, Rohlfs might have never had the chance to make his inventive furniture. Yet from design, construction, structure, and techniques, including even making all wooden joins from wooden pegs on one piece, Rohlfs hasn't fit that neatly into any category [Mission, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau]. So it wasn't mass marketed similar to Stickley [Gustav}. So his "artistic furniture" is so entirely personal, his own vision of beauty he couldn't help but make that furniture.


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