April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
The armchair across the page provides elegant proof that there was more to the turn-of-the-century Arts and Crafts movement than Gustave Stickley. Stickley’s linear style is the one most people associate with American Arts and Crafts furniture. Yet even the most passionate Stickley collector might be happy to trade a dozen of his chairs for a single example like this. In the work of the brothers who made it we see the best possible proof that the movement was not a monolith but a collection of regional styles. Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene of Pasadena designed houses, landscapes, and interiors in a uniquely Western idiom that took the best of the Crafts aesthetic and shaped it to the particular demands of California life.
The Greene brothers were personally and professionally close throughout their long lives. Trained in architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they graduated in 1891, traveled to Pasadena two years later to see their parents, and never went back east. They set up a business and in the first few years of their partnership designed houses according to the conventions of the day. Several factors eventually nudged them forward: During a stopover on their cross-country trip they had been impressed by the Japanese exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and during Charles’s wedding trip to England in 1901 he seems to have come under the sway of the British Arts and Crafts designers William Morris, John Ruskin, M. H. Baillie Scott, and A. H. Mackmurdo. And in California, as the Greene and Greene scholar Randall Makinson notes, there was less of a design tradition to adhere to (or escape from). Starting around 1904, the brothers began to work in a style that was particularly their own.
The Oriental influence surfaced and can be seen in the mother-of-pearl inlays that ornament the splat of the armchair pictured here. For the rest of their careers the brothers would design with a sinuous, even sensuous, rounded line that derived in part from Art Nouveau. The greatest influence on their style, however, always came from closer to home. While respectful of the past, they were firmly rooted in the present and in the demands of designing for California. So the houses they created after about 1905—including the ones Makinson has called “the ultimate bungalows—had generous overhanging roofs to block the sun and wide-open porches to catch the breeze. Eventually the brothers would design more than 150 bungalows—substantial one-story homes for the substantial classes.
The Greenes didn’t design only houses, however. They regarded themselves as complete designers. Their works included not only houses but landscapes and interiors as well, right down to carpets, lighting fixtures, silverware, and linens.
They didn’t work fast. Adelaide Tichenor of Long Beach, an early champion of the Greenes’ work, was frustrated by the amount of time the brothers were putting into the design of furnishings in other projects and complained: “Can you leave your Pasadena customers long enough so that I may hope to have my house during my lifetime? Do you wish me to make a will telling who is to have the house if it is finished?” And they didn’t work cheap: The tab for the Robert R. Blacker House of Pasadena, now regarded as one of the brothers’ masterworks, ran to one hundred thousand dollars from 1907 to 1909. (Since the rediscovery and subsequent revaluation of the Arts and Crafts pieces, that price has soared. In today’s market a pair of Greene and Greene armchairs can command hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a Greene and Greene house is now on the market for close to five million dollars.)
Despite all the waiting and the steep cost, the results were impossible to argue with, particularly in the form of magnificent furniture like this armchair, designed for the Blacker House. The frame is mahogany, with ebony pegs; the craftsmanship is impeccable. “How do you do it?” Frank Lloyd Wright once asked Charles. “How do you get the craftsmen to do it the way you want it?” Wright himself was never able to achieve such quality.
Makinson lovingly points out small but telling details, such as the way the arm subtly transmutes itself from a horizontal element at the front, where it had to bear the weight of the sitter’s arm, to a vertical one at the back, where it had to join the frame. This delicate shift reflects “quite a wonderful understanding of furniture building,” he says, “an understanding that the arm needed to have a different form when it arrived at the back than when it was at the front… [because] conditions were different at the back than at the front.”
Henry Greene liked to say that the idea behind good design was “to find what is necessary and make it beautiful.” In this chair, as in their houses, Greene and Greene illustrated the principle in every joint and turn.