Arts and Crafts Haven

Posted March 13, 2009 at 2:53pm

Although the world loves the furniture and homes of the Arts and Crafts Movement, two brothers who were its main architects have been out of the spotlight, until now.

After their deaths in the 1950s, much of the work of architects Charles and Henry Greene had fallen out of the public eye. Today, though, the work is undergoing a new popularity, said Nicholas Bell, a curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery.

The Renwick is hosting a new exhibit, “The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene,— to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gamble House, one of the brothers’ best-known commissioned works in Pasadena, Calif., and the only place the public can view their work today.

The exhibition contains about 130 pieces of the brothers’ work. “It’s the best opportunity we’ve had to see architectural craftsmanship of the Arts and Craft’s period short of going to Pasadena yourself,— Bell said.

Midwestern influences along with European style and Asian inspiration came together in their furniture, which reflected the Californian landscape, tradition and natural elements, creating a style of their own, in what the exhibit describes as “forward-looking inspiration for American Modernism.—

A wooden entrance signals the start of the exhibit, which shows furniture, decorative arts and architectural drawings in spacious rooms focused on the brother’s best-known period from 1907 to 1910.

Midwestern-born Charles Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Greene (1870-1954) attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and apprenticed at various Boston firms before 1894, when they opened their own practice in Pasadena. Charles Greene was its head designer.

The Gamble House is a perfect example of Californian bungalows. The house reflected a casual style, taking light into consideration, said Anne Mallek, curator at Gamble House.

Originally, the brothers used found materials, such as redwood and cedar, but later started working more with imported wood, such as mahogany.

One item of interest is the Bolton hall chair, made of mahogany in a diamond shape, with influences of 18th-century English and French furniture. “It looks very simple, but it’s very complicated in its construction,— Mallek said.

The austere design “suits its purpose,— she said, explaining that pieces of furniture intended for visitors were always formal, whereas there is “nice, soft cushioning— in the living areas.

Some of the furniture on display has a more exotic style. Charles Greene, who had married an English heiress, spent his honeymoon in Europe. But beyond that trip, the brothers rarely traveled. Influence from Asia, shown in their pieces, came from literature, magazines and an 1893 visit to Chicago’s world fair, called the World’s Columbian Exposition, on their way to Pasadena.

A bedroom chiffonier from 1909 is decorated with tsubas (Japanese sword guards) in ebony, lapis lazuli, turquoise and malachite on walnut and oak. Except for a few inlays of wood, silver or stone, the pieces are not elaborate.

Starting in the 20th century, the brothers formed a collaboration with another pair of brothers, the Swedish immigrants Peter and John Hall (born Jonasson), a contractor and furniture maker. Together they created houses that included everything from the idea to the design for individual picture frames.

The Greene brothers’ inspiration came from many places. During one of his rare travels to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Charles Greene became familiar with Gustav Stickley’s oak designs. He was also aware of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Mallek said.

In 1916, Charles Greene’s family moved to Carmel, Calif., while Henry Greene, who had lived with his mother-in-law since his wife’s passing, kept the business together with their father. Maintaining a good relationship, Mallek said, the business of Greene & Greene was dissolved in 1922.

The Great Depression affected businesses such as the Greenes’, but both were able to continue working on separate projects. Exploring different creative outlets, Charles Greene started to paint and wrote a novel. “He’s a beautiful writer when it comes to architectural work, but fiction was not his strong suit,— Mallek said.

A book titled “A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene— edited by Mallek and Edward Bosley accompanies the exhibit, which runs through June 7.