Anna Katharine Green and Charles Rohlfs: Artistic collaborators

December 2008 | Charles and Ray Eames, Russel and Mary Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald—the artistic collaboration of such husband and wife teams is now understood as an important aspect of twentieth-century design. In some of these joint enterprises, the wives functioned as administrators or business women; in others the collaborative endeavor was considerably more artistic. For the furniture designer Charles Rohlfs (Fig. 3) and his wife, Anna Katharine Green (Fig. 1), the intermeshing of theater and literature, design and the home, and art and life was the defining characteristic of their marriage.

One of the most enigmatic and celebrated American designers of the early twentieth century, Rohlfs is today represented in leading museum collections around the country. Despite his fame, however, the role of Green, better known as a successful mystery novelist of the late nineteenth century, as his first and only design collaborator has been virtually unknown to curators and scholars of decorative art until recently. In this article I will present information about Green’s life and art gleaned from the Rohlfs family papers, many of which were recently donated by their great-granddaughter to the Winterthur Library. I will also analyze a number of decorative works by Rohlfs and Green that have never been fully documented. This examination will be founded on detailed background information on the crucial moment, around 1888, when they first created furnishings for their own use.

Rohlfs married Green on November 25, 1884, at the South Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York. In the midst of their mutual successes over the next several years—Green’s flurry of publishing and Rohlfs’s achievements in acting and industrial design—on July 29, 1887, the couple and their children (twenty-three-month-old Rosamond and newborn Sterling) moved upstate to Buffalo. Rohlfs’s work in industrial design had yielded him a number of patents for stove designs and a job offer in the “Queen City of the Great Lakes” from Sherman S. Jewett and Company. Buffalo was to be their home for the next forty-five years. Here they continued earlier efforts to design and make furniture for themselves that was appropriate to their artistic taste.

For the earliest mention of Rohlfs’s design and manufacture of furniture, we must return to the months just before the move to Buffalo. In a diary entry dated March 20, 1887, he wrote, “We have a mahogany chair in the corner of the stair-landing. Rosamond was the first to sit in it—it is her chair. . . . This chair together with the mahogany mantel-shelves in the dining room are specimens of designing and workmanship of Rosamond’s Mother and Father, both pieces of furniture being recent additions to our stock.”1 The offhand nature of the reference to the mahogany chair is notable in that Rohlfs neither declared it his first furniture effort nor made much of it as an addition “to our stock.” Thus, by March 1887, he had quite possibly been designing and making furniture for several months, if not years. Equally important is the casual revelation that the objects were examples of the design and workmanship of both Rohlfs and Green. That her contribution is not highlighted suggests that this was by no means the first time they had collaborated on furniture for their house.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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