On View / Comparing the craftsmen
Roycroft, Rocker, c. 1910; mahogany, leather, metal tacks
Photos courtesy of the Burchfield Penney Art Center
Arts and Crafts furniture is usually thought of as sturdy and plain, with minimal ornamentation. It celebrates its materials and functionality with richly grained quarter-sawn oak and pegged and pinned or mortise and tenon construction. Given its hard edges and naked joinery, this furniture seems to take a big step toward Modernism, but its valorization of the American artisan keeps it tied to the ideals of British forebears John Ruskin and William Morris.
Thanks to Elbert Hubbard, Charles Rohlfs, and Gustav Stickley, Western New York is a prime location for the study and collection of these objects. Hubbard, founder of the Roycrofters, produced furniture in East Aurora from 1895–1938. Rohlfs worked out of Buffalo from 1898–1928. Stickley’s workshops were in Pennyslvania, Binghamton, and then Syracuse, while a tangential figure—at least for this movement—Frank Lloyd Wright, also contributed furnishings associated with Arts and Crafts. We are fortunate in Buffalo to have access to the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC), which has collected from all of these workshops and is well equipped to display and interpret the movement in context.
Charles Rohlfs, Candlestick (Buffalo, NY), 1901; oak, copper
An exhibition now on view at BPAC—Wright, Roycroft, Stickley, and Rohlfs: Defining the Buffalo School Arts & Crafts Aesthetic—uses pieces of furniture, mainly chairs, to compare the work of the Roycrofters, Stickley, and Rohlfs. Wright comes in as a type of afterthought, and it’s made clear that, unlike his companions in the show, he had no problem with mass production and cheaper materials. One criticism of the show might be that it would have been equally compelling to focus on the three true Arts and Crafts workshops, and leave Wright out of it.
There are clear distinctions between the Roycroft, Stickley, and Rohlfs designs, but Rohlfs is far and away the creative outlier of the group. The dramatic piercings and carvings that embellish what would otherwise be simple chairs and cabinets lend dark, Gothic undertones to his designs. It’s clear why these pieces were so expensive in their day and are so highly prized by collectors now. It’s even a bit difficult to imagine Rohlf’s Candlestick (1901) and the Roycroft Trapezoid Bookstand (c. 1906) as belonging to the same aesthetic movement, except for the reverence for oak demonstrated by both works. Another element that sets Rohlfs apart include the attenuated verticality of his chair backs, giving them the medieval look that many critics have cited.
In comparison, the Stickley designs are tightly restrained, adhering to the what-you-see-is-what-you-get philosophy espoused by the furniture maker. Stickley was a passionate craftsman, but believed, like Morris and Ruskin, that a return to simplicity was needed to protect against the inhumanity of the Industrial Revolution. It’s important to note that simplicity calls attention to the beauty of the materials, as in the multi-toned oak and rush Chair (c. 1909).
Frank Lloyd Wright, Sofa, c. 1910; leather, padding, wooden frame
The Roycroft pieces are heavier that either Rohlfs or Stickley; durability was highly prized by this workshop. They’re also easy for collectors to identify; either an orb and cross insignia or the word Roycroft can usually be found in a prominent spot.
Many of the pieces in this exhibition would scarcely be noticed in their intended context: a typical dining room, study, bedroom, or other domestic space. That is as their makers intended, for the most part. Spotlighted in a darkened gallery, they are solemn, endowed with the pride and dignity that attended their creation. And they look ready for another hundred years.
Wright, Roycroft, Stickley, and Rohlfs: Defining the Buffalo School Arts & Crafts Aesthetic is on view at BPAC through November 26. Call 878-6011 or visit burchfieldpenney.org for more information.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree.