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by Wendell Garrett
|The renewed interest in the furniture and related designs of the quintessential Arts and Crafts designers Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870-1954) of Pasadena, Ca., has focused attention on the basic principles of the movement, which has long been due more serious attention from architects, designers and historians. The Greene brothers were trained in Beaux-Arts architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then established an architecture practice in Pasadena in 1893.
The two major influences on their work were The Craftsman magazine which, published by Gustav Stickley from 1901 to 1916, was the greatest disseminator of Arts and Crafts in America, and the arts of the Orient. They began to collect Japanese prints and books about Oriental gardens, buildings and furniture and to see the spare, asymmetric design and superb craftsmanship of the East as the ultimate esthetic ideal.
All these influences came together in Greene & Greene's most significant group of buildings -- the bungalows they designed between 1907 and 1909. The language of the Greenes was wood: native redwood for beams and shingles, mahogany for furniture. They delighted in structural revelation, in demonstrating how wood could be joined, interlocked and sculpted.
An armchair made in 1907 for Robert R. Blacker in Pasadena is on permanent exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Made of mahogany, ebony, and oak by the Peter Hall Manufacturing Company of Pasadena, this living room armchair has double brackets, a stepped hand rest and recessed carving on the feet. The design of the chair is a complex interplay of subtly carved and tapered elements.
The architects incorporated Japanese motifs into their furniture's feet, brackets, drawer pulls and carvings. The furniture was constructed to the Green brothers' specifications by a furniture manufacturing firm established by the brothers Peter and John Hall to cater to the Greenes' designs. The Halls used Scandinavian slotted screw techniques instead of the more common American mortise-and-tenon method and influenced the Greenes in their choice of mahogany.
A distinguishing feature of Greene brothers designs is the rounded treatment of edges and corners. This softened effect contrasts markedly with the strong, sharp character of contemporary furniture designed by Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright. Whereas Stickley and Wright accentuated the strength and thrust of their materials, the Greenes glorified the craftsman's ability to make wood appear subtle, sensitive and pliable. They employed machinery extensively to fashion and finish the furniture, and the results speak resoundingly of the validity of machine construction when harnessed to sound ideals.
The Greenes' buildings and furnishings emanated from a clear understanding of what the craftsman required to realize a design. Their ability to find those who could carry out their designs was essential to the extraordinary quality and quantity of their work. As accomplished craftsmen themselves, they commanded the respect of the very best artisans, who worked with them.
Additionally, the brothers were blessed with an extraordinary ability to analyze, visualize and compose. They were confident, free from tradition and inspired by the unlimited opportunities for self-expression to be found in Southern California, and their engaging and modest manner drew an enlightened, prosperous clientele with the courage to explore new concepts.
Within their progressive architectural designs can be felt a deep regard for the arts of other cultures, and a strong but subtle unity of site, structure, interiors, furnishings and accessories. Every element is an independent entity, yet each plays an important role in the total composition.
Greene and Greene interiors are symphonies of rooms and furnishings, materials and joinery, textures and details. No element escaped the brothers' careful scrutiny and the level of craftsmanship is unsurpassed. The lines are simple and straightforward, and the joinery is emphasized rather hidden. Pegs and dowels project from the surface to provide texture and scale while the beauty and grain of the wood is enhanced by the use of natural finishes. Special attention was given to the hand-rubbed surfaces to prevent discoloration from water marks.
The first furniture designs were executed by Charles Greene in a shop behind his house, where in 1903 he designed and made simple benches, bookshelves, picture frames and wooden wall sconces. With the encouragement of several key clients in 1904, the Greenes began to design complete interiors with furnishings. The shapes remained simple, but straight lines began to soften and the abstract cloud forms found on Chinese furniture began to give a sculptural quality to the Greenes' furniture. Instead of oak and ash they began to use Honduras mahogany, ebony, walnut and gray maple -- woods that could be worked well, took soft stains easily and responded to the oil finishes the Greenes favored.
As the number of furniture commissions grew, the Greenes had increasing difficulty finding craftsmen and cabinet shops able or willing to meet their exacting standards. Production problems, however, were resolved in 1905 when the Greenes made the acquaintance of Peter and John Hall. In a short time the Greenes helped expand the facilities and personnel in the Halls' shop, which soon was producing work almost exclusively for the Greenes. Peter Hall became the primary contractor for most of their buildings, and John Hall oversaw the production of the furniture and other interior decorative elements the Greenes designed.
So smooth was the working relationship between Charles Greene and John Hall that the quantity of furniture produced increased enormously. However, the quality and subtle refinements of each piece were maintained by the presence of Charles Greene. Dressed in a smock, he would spend part of every morning in the Halls' shop in Pasadena moving from craftsman to craftsman, picking up their tools and working alongside them, maintaining constant supervision over every detail of production.
For a brief period in 1906 the Greenes were strongly influenced by Chinese antique furniture. It was a time of great experimentation, and extraordinary attention was given developing the subtle details of joinery. The decorative square ebony pegs and pegged ebony spines that became the most characteristics of the brothers' mature designs emerged in 1906. The subtle curve of the top of the pegs standing above the surface became more sophisticated with each new piece. These refinements, developed almost daily, resulted in variations between pieces made for the same client. The quantity of designs turned out between 1903 and 1906 is astonishing, considering that the Greenes maintained absolute control over both the on-site construction and the production of furnishings in the shop.
Between 1911 and 1934 there was considerably greater variety in the work of each of the brothers. The clientele was smaller and they had the time to experiment as they had earlier in their careers. Some of their designs during these years incorporated far more decorative elements than before, while others were so restrained and elegant that they look as up-to-date today as when they were made.
For Charles and Henry Greene, logic dictated design, and the decoration primarily evolved from the joinery itself. They drew from the nature of the materials with which they worked, and they understood the tools and crafts of the artisan so that their works embody the highest aspirations of the Arts and Crafts movement in America.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American Decorative Arts at Sotheby's.