Modern Greene & Greene Style: Six CustomMade Artisans
CustomMade is very fortunate to include in our galleries the works of talented artisans who create Greene & Greene style furniture. CustomMade friend David Mathias has recently written a book, Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light, a new look at the houses and furniture of Charles and Henry Greene. In this guest blog, David discusses the character of the Greene & Greene style and how six CustomMade artisans are actively carrying on that legacy in unique ways.
In the early years of the 20th century, Charles and Henry Greene designed, and Peter and John Hall and their workmen built, an impressive body of work that includes some of the most highly regarded furniture and decorative objects to arise from the Arts & Crafts movement. A century later, an even broader audience appreciates the Greene & Greene legacy thanks to the efforts of many individuals. Here we will focus on just a small cross section of the talented craftsmen and craftswomen who continue the work of the Greenes and Halls by creating new works in the style of those geniuses who worked in Pasadena so long ago.
Greene & Greene were obsessive in their pursuit of detail nirvana. They would expend thought, effort, and their clients’ money on elements that few but the servants would ever see. The backs of cabinets were prepared and finished with the same care as the fronts. The most trivial features were designed by the architects rather than allocated from the parts bin. Doors and windows were designed anew for each commission. Furniture, interiors and structures were equal recipients of this attention.
It is often difficult to discern where furniture ends and interior woodwork begins in the Greene & Greene style. The woodwork and built-ins are so beautiful in design, execution, and materials that they are elevated to the level of the best furniture. It’s as if the rooms themselves are exquisite furnishings. That furniture and architectural details share common elements serves to enhance this effect. Every piece of furniture was a unique creation designed to occupy a particular place in a particular room. Since there was no need for general designs that could fit into many settings, a unity of design developed that has seldom been seen before or since.
Finding a formula for a well-designed Greene & Greene piece would be impossible. Though the style is hard to define there are some adjectives that begin to capture the feel. Graceful is the first that comes to mind. This derives from the scale and proportion of the pieces but also from the easy interplay of components. Nothing seems forced or overdone. It is said that a good melody is inevitable. So it is with Greene & Greene furniture. What to add or remove to improve a piece, to achieve perfection? The answer is nothing. It’s difficult to imagine it any other way.
And so it is with the furniture created by the craftsmen highlighted here. Their work is of the highest quality, and their affection for and devotion to the Greene & Greene legacy is obvious, though they may express is differently through their own words and craft.
California art glass craftsman John Hamm describes his first encounter with the Blacker House as life changing. After that visit, John went on to do significant work for that house and has since worked in a number of other Greene & Greene houses, including the Gamble, Ford, Robinson and Thorsen. He describes his goal as making his work look as authentic to the period as possible. John’s devotion to Greene & Greene is not limited to his glasswork. He has been a docent at the Gamble House for many years, where he leads tours and helps share the magic of the Greenes with visitors. Though his work is not limited to the Greenes’ style, it is in the Arts & Crafts and Greene & Greene styles in particular that he finds his primary inspiration.
John is not alone in describing the life altering aspects of encounters with Greene & Greene. Indiana woodworker and teacher Dale Barnard was smitten after a visit to the Gamble house in 1995. He has since made furniture and house interiors in their style – including doors, trim, built-ins and kitchens – for clients as far away as Colorado. Dale’s guiding principle when designing a new piece is to remain as faithful to the original vision as possible. He says, “I do not believe that I can improve on their design so I stay as close as I can to it.” Dale’s latest venture is a woodworking school run at his facility in Paoli, Indiana. Through the school he is continuing the legacy in another vital way: he is teaching the next generation of woodworkers how to make Greene & Greene furniture.
“As with all objects of beauty,” Tom Gallenberg notes, “the smallest of details, when properly combined, create a quality that our eyes are drawn to and appreciate.” This attention to detail is part of what attracted him to Greene & Greene pieces, and he has followed that affinity as he has branched out into working on custom interiors. The attention to detail and the resulting beauty of his recently completed work for a home near Milwaukee is amazing and very much in keeping with the spirit of Greene & Greene. This custom designed Greene & Greene style wine cellar and bar is from that project. Like many craftsmen working in historic styles, Tom travels to museums and exhibits to view original works and study available books. In addition to custom interior work, Tom has created a number of furniture pieces in the Greenes’ style. Their sensitivity displays his firm grasp of the accomplishments of the Greenes and Halls. “As a fellow artisan and passionate student of this style,” he writes, “I deeply appreciate the work on many differing levels. The feeling that it elicits inspires me to create new works of my own.”
The Holy Grail for any craftsman working in the Greene & Greene style is to get their work into one of the original houses. Earlier this year, Richard Weigand found the Grail. Richard was approached by the owner of the William Bolton House in Pasadena to recreate the suite of furniture for the entry hall of that 1906 home, a suite that includes two chairs, a console table, a tabouret, and a mirror. The chairs are in place (after several prototypes to be sure every detail was perfect) and are wonderful. In addition, Richard has created a desk for a former White House Press Secretary. An artist who realized that he wanted to create functional objects in addition to beauty, Richard describes discovering Greene & Greene: “They showed me wonderful aesthetics, practical function, and an inordinate amount of care and thought.”
The well-documented and much admired Asian influence on Greene & Greene is part of what drew Bill LaBerge to their work. “I call their style ‘where Japan meets Santa Fe.’ I love the oriental flare and the Arts & Crafts ethos: quality materials, craftsmanship and attention to details. When you visit one of their houses you can feel how the landscaping, art, and architecture all blend into a cohesive presentation.” One of Bill’s favorite pieces is a tansu chest he was commissioned to design. He liked the design so much that he made another. The second one is now in his showroom. Bill likes to incorporate work from other artists into his pieces: paintings, carved elements, and inlays. He is considering including stones in some pieces. Given the Greenes’ use of arroyo boulders in their architecture and their emphasis on natural themes in their interiors, I suspect that they would approve.
Seattle woodworker Darrell Peart creates reproductions and original pieces in the Greene & Greene style. The latter, however, dominate his catalog. In particular, his line of Aurora case pieces, like this Aurora pedestal desk, is a wonderful modern interpretation of the Greene & Greene aesthetic. Modern in this context means well suited to a 21st century home, with pieces such as a media cabinet. (100 years ago, a media cabinet had another name: magazine stand). As one would expect of studio furniture, the fit and finish are perfect. This may help explain a backlog of work for Darrell that often approaches a year. Few people spend as much time as Darrell studying and dissecting the Greenes’ work. So in tune is he with their designs that the signature detail in his Aurora line – the curved, cloud-lifted rail and drawer – bear a resemblance to a detail that Greene & Greene included on a relatively unknown piece, one that Darrell certainly had never seen when he created the Aurora line. He not only creates beautiful pieces but he is able to channel Charles Greene. There isn’t any higher praise than that.
Darrell described the honor of meeting Sam Maloof several years ago. Maloof, of course, worked well into his 90s. “His life is a great inspiration to me.” Darrell continued, expressing a thought that is likely shared by these other craftsmen, “I plan on never retiring. What could possibly top something that fuels my passion and is so rewarding?”
Order your copy of Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light by David Mathias. Signed copies are still available.
For more information on the Greene & Greene style, check out two previous CustomMade guest blogs, “‘Poems of Wood & Light’ with David Mathias” by David Mathias and “It’s All in the Details” by Darrell Peart.
Search our galleries if you’d like to see more examples of Greene & Greene furniture by CustomMade artisans.