Greene & Greene Furniture: Poems of Wood & Light

A Blog based on the book - and other writing - by David Mathias


Emulating Greene & Greene


EntryTableDrawer
Drawer detail of the table from the entry hall of the David Gamble house, Pasadena, CA, 1908-09.

One more guest blog entry before I finally get my butt back in gear and start writing something now and then. This post is from my friend Darrell Peart. Darrell is a furniture maker located in Seattle. It won’t surprise any of you to learn that like me, Darrell worships at the altar of Greene & Greene. One of only a handful of truly excellent woodworkers who make furniture in the Greene & Greene style, Darrell prefers to make pieces of his own design drawing heavily from the Greenes’ design vocabulary. The result is a collection of stunningly beautiful furniture that you can view at Darrell’s website. Here are some thoughts he was kind enough to put together for me on the topic of artistic evolution.

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Proficiency of any skill or talent is achieved by emulating the master. This is how things have always been and how things will always be. Every creative endeavor owes its existence to that which preceded it. If this were not so, every artist would be compelled to invent art itself: there would be no starting point or any foundation to build upon. Without a starting point art would simply not exist.

The Greene’s mimicked those who came before them, with much of their earlier work being more imitation than original. With experience though, they became masters themselves. The style they developed brought together elements borrowed not only from their predecessors, but diverse sources within their sphere of contact. As master designers, the Greene’s were able to fuse seemingly unrelated elements into a unified body. The Swiss Chalet and the Asian cloud-lift, under their skillful direction spoke the same language. The Greene’s were supreme masters of their creative environment.

Art, at its most rudimentary level is nothing more than imitation. An artist sees something and is inspired to make a likeness. That something can be anything the universe has to offer. The ways in which an artist’s inspirations are presented and arranged is what makes it unique. A style is born when the artist’s vision becomes a cohesive unit – when there is a common DNA connecting all their work.

Art is not meant to be static. It is under constant change. The creative vision is unceasingly restless. The Greene’s work continually evolved throughout their careers. Each new project saw the introduction of new design elements which blended seamlessly with the existing ones. These new elements were things that appeared within the Greene’s field of vision – things they came in contact with either through random chance or focused study.

If Charles and Henry were alive today, and engaged in design, their work would have moved on, bringing in new elements and ideas from their changing environment. Their creative vision would not have been static. It is even possible that their work would not be recognizable as what we consider Greene & Greene.

The truly creative spirit is forever restless: it is an essential part of the mix that makes for a great artist and master. Truly emulating the work and spirit of the Greene’s is not found in producing exact replicas. Take what you will from Greene & Greene : let it soak in and then move forward as they continually did.
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G&G on the Antiques Roadshow


RoadshowDrawing
The Greene & Greene flyswatter. Original drawing by Terry Peart.

It has been quite a while since I’ve posted to this blog. Just over two months, in fact. The reason is quite simple, I haven’t felt like writing. Actually, it isn’t quite that simple because I’ve had this guest post from Tom Moore and another by Darrell Peart on hand for quite some time and haven’t posted them. No particular reason other then the fact that I’ve been spending as much time as possible hiking in the mountains and more time planning hikes, assembling panoramic photos, etc.

The flight of fancy that appears below is the product of the fertile mind of my good friend Tom Moore.
Tom’s writing has appeared previously in this space but this story is particularly inspired. One point that Tom was too modest to mention: after writing this piece, he made several of the flyswatters, one of which is on display in my living room.
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On December 17, 2004, Sotheby’s held another of their many “firsts” auctions, “American Renaissance: Including An Important Private Collection of Greene & Greene.” It included the largest single offering of objects from turn-of-the-century architects Charles and Henry Greene. Every item was designed, built, owned or painted by the Greenes. In all, 50 G&G lots were available. When the cash settled, Ted Wells, spokesperson and bidder for the Guardian Stewardship secured all lots.

What followed was unexpected and most interesting. Others in possession of G&G objects offered them to Ted for sale. Shortly thereafter, Ted posted a message on Darrell Peart’s Greene-Style-Furniture, a Yahoo! group. “…there are scores (or more) of Greene and Greene pieces out there that we are (or at least I was) unaware of, especially considering that since the December auction I have been approached about buying scores of pieces that before now, have never been exhibited or seen by the public or current scholars or authors…”

Without providing any concrete details about what resides in our neighbors’ homes, Ted further commented the they are “…some of the most incredibly constructed and beautiful pieces of decorative arts created in America.” My mind raced, imagining the most fantastic objects I could. I wished all these items could one day appear on the PBS show “Antiques Roadshow”.

The next day I couldn’t help but dwell on imaginary treasures. Then, at lunch, I began typing. I had no idea what to type, or where it would lead. In about 25 minutes or so, the story below appeared in my word processor – I don’t know from where. It was a story that virtually wrote itself. That evening I posted it on the Yahoo group.

Upon reading it, Darrell’s wife, Terry, took chalk in hand and created the image that leads this blog giving form to my main characters, Eileen and Paddy. It really brings them “to life.”

Hope you enjoy the reading of an Antiques Roadshow episode never (yet) aired.
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The spotlights brighten, illuminating scores of individual furniture pieces placed strategically about the auditorium. They range in size from desktop accessories to dining tables and sideboards.

Eileen Left, the show host, stands behind a simple display of what looks to be a very old, common household apparatus. The camera pans the crowded auditorium, revealing the scope of furniture and the excited owners assembled for this first-ever show dedicated to the body of work of a single architectural firm, the Greene brothers - Charles and Henry - of Pasadena, CA, in the foothills above Los Angeles.

Without a sound, the camera zooms in on the host, and then focuses on the object before her. "Yes, folks, this is what you've been waiting for! It’s the only surviving example of high bungalow art applied to a fly swatter. What a find!

"This glorious sample of art for art's sake found the light of day only last week, when a Greene & Greene admirer noticed its resemblance to the organic yet sinuous lines of furniture characteristic of the famous Gamble House in Pasadena. Upon investigation, the work was attributed to Greene and Greene, specifically Charles Sumner Greene. Not because of the so-called cloud-lift pattern along the shank of the handle, not due to the generous number of ebony plugs, not because of the “tree of life” illustration on the lacework on the business end of this effective tool, but because of the inscription and initials found faintly visible on the edge of the handle. The inscription reads, 'Seven flies with one blow,' followed by the initials C. S. G. These initials, we have come to know, stand for Charles Sumner Greene, the more artistic of the Greene brothers.”

(Eileen angles the swatter for the camera close-up.)

"Notice the long, sculptured Honduras mahogany handle, and the delicate silk netting, replete with Charles Greene’s favorite watercolor Oak Rose pattern. Likely it was inspired during one his numerous walks in the arroyo adjacent to his hilltop home a few blocks from the Gamble House.

"Let’s take a closer look and learn more about this startling discovery. We have an expert guest to assist us today. Here to provide his own unique 'lens into the artist' viewpoint is acclaimed architect/author/bon vivant, Paddy O'Ferncher. Welcome, Paddy."

"Thanks for inviting me, Eileen. I’m pleased as punch to have been selected to describe this unique Greene and Greene piece accessory."

"That’s a good place to start, Paddy. Most viewers know Greene and Greene through their incomparable architecture, embodied in the half-dozen or so houses referred to as the 'ultimate bungalows'. Some viewers may not know that the commission for those houses included designing accessories and exclusive furniture, intended not only for a certain room within the house, but for a specific spot in the room.

"Paddy, when first I held it, I was struck by much more than just the overall pleasing aesthetic. The feel is, well, sensuous. The balance - disproportionate but neutral. The Honduras mahogany handle - it's sooo smooth, and fits my dainty hand perfectly. And I just love the tiny Ebony faux plugs placed so randomly, yet so pleasingly along the handle. They’re adorable! Tell me, Paddy, for which house was this exquisite fly swatter designed?"

"Sorry to say, Eileen, but that handle is not actually Honduras mahogany as I heard you say - twice now. You misspoke, and we can't mislead our viewers, can we? In the interest of historical accuracy, and to maintain the sanctity of Charles’s unmatched ability to select the most harmonious materials and features to capture the essence and simplicity of the Arts and Crafts Movement, I should wish to set the record straight. It is African mahogany. This species is a member of the mahogany botanical family Meliaceae. Its botanical name is Entandrophragma Cylindricum. It is widely used as a substitute for genuine – that is Honduras - mahogany in Europe. Made in any other wood species, the swatter would be useless. Charles was brilliant!"

"Um, thanks, Paddy...I think."

"I like to refer to this as the 'little flyswatter that could.' First, let's gaze at the overall piece. My prescient eye noted the hue of the handle. It’s unlike any other Greene & Greene creation, known or unknown. It’s sublime, it's...it's recherché!

"And the handle design itself is unprecedented. As I rotate it on its secondary axis, we are treated to another aspect of design heretofore unknown in the entire Greene & Greene body of work - the rumored bifurcated cloud lift! Through the years rumors of this persisted, but until today, they were just that - rumors. Well, rumors no more. Ha!

"And, Eileen, those aren't just randomly placed faux plugs, no. Sorry again. I guess you hadn't paid attention when we spoke before the show. It takes the uncommonly educated eye of a true connoisseur to recognize that the actual placement of every plug was by intention; Charles’s aggressive use of these plugs is the key to the inscription. The Mickey Mouse, brave little tailor type claim: 'Seven flies with one blow.'

"Only when you rotate it on its tertiary axis do you recognize that the plug arrangement replicates the ancient Japanese booby-trap motif. Eureka! Brilliant! To the ignorant observer, these look to be just plugs. But Charles knew that this particular plug arrangement does more. It interferes with a fly's vision, confusing its electrochemical output. Brilliant!"

"Paddy, get a hold of yourself. You’re panting. You’re sweating. Actually, you’re vibrating."

"As you know, one of the principles underlying the Arts and Crafts Movement worldwide was disdain for machine-made objects. Within the Movement, and high on the Greene’s personal list of imperatives was to utilize machinery sparingly. They were used only to relieve the craftsperson from tedium and mind numbing, repetitive work. To the Greenes, there was a moral importance to honest craftsmanship. This fly swatter is a sterling example - completely hand made, save the wire form that shapes and supports the netting. I’ll demonstrate how it works so effectively.

"As one approaches an unsuspecting fly buzzing about, the fly catches sight of the plug pattern and is mesmerized. Waving it in this manner...” (Paddy assumes a semi Tai Chi stance and slowly and deliberately moves the fly swatter in larger and larger circles, followed by ever-smaller circles.) We know that the term 'boxing' means empty-hand combat, but Charles knew you can't catch flies on the fly with your bare hands. By the way, what do you call a fly with its wings removed? A run! Ha! Heheheh! Oh, how I amuse myself!"

"Amusing...," Eileen offers with exasperation.

"Anyway, Charles thought of everything - down to the last detail. He foresaw the ultimate frustration of the servants and kitchen help as they dealt with those pesky Southern California flies and in brilliant fashion, provided an elegant solution. He put into their hands the most deadly weapon possible against flies, scourge of the domestic. Brilliant!

"The innate design of the plug pattern, in concert with expert manipulation of this ancient-weapon-masquerading-as-a-work-of-art, spelled instant annihilation for the flies. Brilliant!

"By the time you complete the smallest of circles, the fly is rendered virtually helpless. Simply, it cannot see to navigate, so it lights on the closest horizontal surface. And with one Rambo-style, kendo wrist-flick – splat – one less nuisance."
Paddy tears-up and breaks down, falling to one knee. Eileen plucks the fly swatter from his now limp hand, holds it high above her head, hesitates, and then delivers a deliberate and purposeful whack on his head, raising a welt the size of a golf ball. Paddy ends up prostrate on the floor. Crimson oozes from the wound.

The 100 year-old handle, dry and fragile, shatters upon impact. The fine-spun netting, weak from thousands of previous successful fly smashings, was left without strength sufficient to withstand this most vicious swing. It bursts apart, transforming into a hovering cloud of pastel dust. All that remains intact is the machine-made steel wire that lies glistening on the floor beside Paddy.

Eileen turns and slowly faces the camera, open mouthed, and with a blank look on her face. Instinctively, the stage director dims the lights and disconnects the microphones. All onlookers stand motionless, staring as it all goes black.
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The Last Ultimate


ThorsenStand
Archival drawing of a plant stand designed for the William Thorsen house, Berkeley, c.1910. Charles Sumner Greene Collection (1959-1) Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley. Used with permission.

During the first decade of the 20th century, Charles and Henry Greene, together with Peter and John Hall and a small army of workers and craftsmen, created five Ultimate Bungalows. Or four. Or possibly six. The answer depends less on one’s ability to count than on what constitutes an Ultimate Bungalow. Until the International Standards Organization speaks to the matter, there will be some disagreement. Whatever the final number, everyone we can find near universal agreement that these houses constitute the culmination of a prolific and all too brief period of intense creativity that included the design of many other remarkable homes before, during and after the construction of the Ultimates.

The William Thorsen house in Berkeley is the last of the Ultimate Bungalows. The Thorsens lived in the house until their deaths in the early 1940s. At that time, the house was purchased by the University of California chapter of Sigma Phi. Now 100 years old, the house is in need of some restoration work, not least a seismic retrofit to ensure that it remains standing when the “big one” hits. The post below is the first of several by my friend Joe Johnston who is involved with an effort to bring to the house reproductions of furniture designed by the Greenes for the Thorsens. As with all aspects of the restoration effort, brothers of Sigma Phi are actively involved.

A Great Opportunity

Being in the right place at the right time has its advantages. Consider Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg from the technology world. They were both in the right place at the right time with a product everyone wanted. They both just happened to make a fortune in the process.

From my perspective, being in the right place means living within 15 minutes of the Thorsen House, one of the five “Ultimate Bungalows” designed by Charles and Henry Greene.

When I received an email from Darrell Peart a couple of months ago, I felt that I
truly was in the right place at the right time. When he asked if I would be interested in helping some of the student members of Sigma Phi Society reproduce some of the smaller tables at the Thorsen House, I jumped at the chance. I thought, “Wow, I just might get to photograph, measure, draw, and reproduce an actual piece of Greene and Greene furniture - this is the chance of a lifetime!”

The Thorsen House has been owned by the Sigma Phi Society since 1943. Several of the alumni are active in the preservation and restoration efforts at the house. I met with Dave Munroe, one of these alumni, and we agreed that it would be great if we could find any original drawings that might exist for the furniture. Dave set up an appointment at the Environmental Design Archives at UC Berkeley where many of the original Greene and Greene drawings are archived. Use of these archives for the purpose of furniture reproduction is normally not allowed. We were only granted access because the project was a restoration effort for the house itself.

Like kids in a candy store, we searched through all of the material related to the Thorsen House. Lo-and-behold, we found a small 1 ½” scale drawing of the Thorsen “plant stand”. Interestingly enough, there was some pen & ink handwriting on the drawing calling out mahogany as the material for construction. Knowing that the actual piece was made of teak, we tried to envision what the design process might have been. Since the Thorsen taboret, a similar piece, was made of mahogany, we guessed that this drawing was some sort of hybrid representation from which both pieces had evolved.

A hands-on experience

Since drawings are not necessarily the final word in the evolution of a project, Dave and I decided that it would be best to examine the pieces in person, if possible. By doing this, we could get exact measurements and photographs, rather than merely relying on the drawing. Knowing that the plant stand had been on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino, we had hopes that the taboret was also there. Dave set about to try to arrange a viewing for us. Dave was able to set up an appointment through the director of the Gamble House, Ted Bosley. He confirmed that both tables were entrusted to the museum and were either onsite or in offsite storage. Ted, Dave, and I visited the Dorothy Collins Brown Wing of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art where many Greene and Greene pieces are on permanent display. Upstairs, in temporary storage, we found the taboret and plant stand. We had about 1 ½ hours to measure, photograph, and take notes. Dave and I donned our cotton examination gloves and set about measuring the pieces with a cloth tape measure.

Dave and I thanked Ted as we left the museum. We were both extremely grateful for the opportunity to examine actual Greene and Greene furniture pieces.

Furniture reproduction

Writing this piece now, I am well into the process of reproducing both the taboret and plant stand. The plant stand reproduction is a collaborative effort with a couple of the students, Zach Wong and Adam Hoagland, and the process is being documented for the Thorsen House blog. Both students are enthusiastic about the reproduction process and are very capable woodworkers. The taboret reproduction is an effort I chose to undertake myself. I feel extremely honored to be involved in any part of the restoration effort, and this was my way of contributing to that effort.

You too can contribute to the Thorsen House restoration effort. You can visit their web site (
www.thorsenhouse.org) to learn more about the restoration and make a contribution to this worthy effort. I would encourage every Greene and Greene enthusiast to help the Sigma Phi Society with this effort to help preserve one of the five beloved “Ultimate Bungalows”.


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Unexpected Beauty


GandGPlane
A hand plane inspired by the work of Charles and Henry Greene. Designed and made by Chris Adkins.

Charles Greene once wrote that part of the goal of the firm he founded with his brother, Henry, was "...to make these necessary and useful things pleasurable." Their almost single-minded drive in achieving that goal plays a significant role in their legacy and continued popularity. One need only look at the garage doors at the Gamble house to understand. It is not surprising that these utilitarian objects employ design elements found in the house. What is surprising, in my opinion, is that those elements are not used in a cursory way. The level of detail suggests a very careful approach to the design.

In the last several decades, as the Greene & Greene legacy has grown and their style has become a favorite among woodworkers, many have designed pieces, typically furniture, using their unique vocabulary. There is a broad range of success, or lack thereof, among the results. Some, such as the work by my friends Darrell Peart, Tom Stangeland and David Wade, are quite wonderful. Many others languish in less rarified air -- I include in this category the first G&G piece I designed, a coffee table on which I wish I could take a mulligan.

Other designers have taken to heart the quote above and created Greene & Greene versions of purely necessary things, crating beauty in unexpected places. Several years ago, my good friend Tom Moore created several fly swatters as Charles Greene might have designed them -- in mahogany with ebony accents. (Perhaps I'll ask Tom if I can post the essay he wrote that was the impetus for the fly swatter project.) I proudly display one of them in my living room. More recently, a woodworker named Chris Adkins, whom I "met" online, created the Greene & Greene hand plane pictured above.

Chris' plane embodies the spirit of Charles Greene's statement. Shop made planes have been around for a very long time. Often, though not always, they emphasize functionality almost completely over appearance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that approach. Using any good tool provides a woodworker with a degree of satisfaction that increases greatly when that woodworker has created the tool in question. In Chris' case, he gets the added pleasure of using a beautiful object, which is exactly the point.

Visit Chris Adkins’ website at: www.highrockwoodworking.com

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I wanna be an astronaut...


BittonCapeAuMoine
Cape au Moine (1941m), Alpes Vaudoises, Suisse by Samuel Bitton.


Like many people my age, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. John Glenn orbited the earth around the time I was born and Neil Armstrong walked on the moon when I was 7. However, unlike most, I never really grew out of that desire. Well into high school, astronaut was still my top career choice. Until, that is, reality reared it's ugly head in the form of several inconvenient facts. The Apollo program was finished and the shuttle not yet a reality meaning that astronauts were not in great demand. Most astronauts (perhaps all at that time) came out of the military which was not a path I was willing to pursue. And, perhaps most troubling, I don't like roller coasters so how was I supposed to get through astronaut training and actual space flights? (This point was brought home quite plainly when, years later, I went on the NASA ride at EPCOT. My equilibrium was off for hours.)

Everyone goes through similar realizations. At some point we understand that we'll never be the next Hank Aaron; we'll never catch the winning touchdown pass in the Super Bowl or sink a putt to win the Master's. We realize that despite that most American of cliches, we'll never be president (later, we begin to wonder why anyone would want that job). At some point we stop waiting for the call from the Nobel committee. Some people seek greatness, others have it thrust upon them. The rest of us have to be happy with living good lives, loving our families, raising our children well, helping others when we can.

For me at least, the realizations haven't yet stopped. Last week, for example, I realized that I'll never be the next Samuel Bitton. You've probably never heard of him -- I hadn't until Friday. Throughout the facility where my wife works, are displays of art. On a monthly basis, the displays are changed from one artist to another. Often the works are paintings, currently they are panoramic landscape photographs by a photographer named Samuel Bitton. I haven't viewed the photos in person but on his website they are spectacular.

Perhaps I am predisposed to like his photos because many of them were shot locally and I am familiar with more than a few of the places depicted. However, I think that I like them primarily because they are astoundingly good. It might be depressing except for the fact that I'm old enough to have made peace with who and what I am, and who and what I am not. Of course, that won't stop me from trying to recreate a few of his photos but it should help salve my ego when I'm not able to achieve his beautiful results.

To see more of Samuel Bitton's photos, visit www.samuelbitton.com
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Cuckoo


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The Diablerets Massif from above Col de la Croix.

Switzerland is, by any measure, a beautiful place. With an abundance of snow-capped peaks, verdant alpine meadows, crystal clear lakes and interesting ancient buildings, it captivates one's mind. These wonders are not hard to find: a country roughly the size of West Virginia, Switzerland is home to more than 5000 peaks of over 2000 meters. The beauty is literally everywhere.

If I tried to list the most beautiful places I've ever been, nearly all of them would be here and in the past year. Hawaii would make an appearance, as would the Monterrey Bay. Of course there are many fantastic places that I've never been: Arches National Park, Scandinavia's fjords, the plains of Africa. But if limited to places I've actually visited, the most beautiful places in the world are all within 100 miles of where we live.

The best way to experience nature is, of course, to get out among it. Through the car (or train) window is great but it is so much better up close and personal. Those who know me well know that I was never much of an outdoorsman in the US. I now know that that says more about the places I've lived than it does about me. I used to enjoy heading to a nice park (Brandywine Creek State Park in Wilmington, DE, where I grew up) or to the closest thing to hills in our vicinity (the Hocking Hills in Ohio, about an hour from where we spent 13 years before moving here) but I now live for hiking up mountains or through alpine valleys. I've walked more in the last few months than in the last 10 years (it's a guess -- don't hold me to it).

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Gratuitous cow photo taken during a hike last week.

Every hike holds some surprise that adds to the experience. On most excursions, Sergio and Lars are my hiking partners. Last week, the three of us were going from Les Diablerets to Villars, a 16km trek over Col de la Croix with the spectacular 3000m Diablerets Massif as backdrop. While walking through a forested section of the trail, Sergio stopped and told us to listen. The sound we heard was remarkable, at least to me.

Everyone is familiar with cuckoo clocks -- they're the temporal equivalent of dinner and a show. I may be the last sentient being on the planet to learn this but cuckoos are real birds. The sound that Sergio pointed out to us last week was the call of a male cuckoo. It sounded exactly like every cuckoo clock you've ever heard and the experience was both hilarious and fascinating. A couple of days later, while on a solo hike, I heard two more cuckoos. I thought them quite charming until I read a little about them -- they are avian sociopaths. (Read the wikipedia page for "common cuckoo.") Evil birds aside, every hike is an opportunity to learn: about nature, about myself, and because Lars is a nuclear physicist, about the universe. Not a bad way to spend a day.

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