Charles Rohlfs - Design Masters New York Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, New York

  • Literature

    "Furniture: Designed and Made by Charles Rohlfs,” Art Education, January 1901, p. 228
    Joseph Cunningham, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, exh. cat., Milwaukee Art Museum, Chipstone Foundation, American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, New Haven, CT, 2008, p. 72, fig. 4.8, p. 78, fig. 4.12 for a related model

  • Catalogue Essay

    Charles Rohlfs was among the most gifed and pioneering furnituremakers at the turn of the twentieth century, creating singular works drawn from a mix of styles including Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and protomodernism. Previously engaged as a Shakespearean actor, Rohlfs turned to furniture making in earnest around 1896, quickly developing virtuosic skills and an unusual aesthetic that set him apart from his contemporaries in America. Though he explored a wide array of interesting forms and ornamentation in the years leading up to 1900, there were two objects which produced in surprising quantity: the well-known Hall Chair and Rotating Desk, the second of which may well be the predecessor for the present lot.(1) With the excitement of the turning of the century and in anticipation of the Pan American Exposition in his hometown of Buffalo in 1901, Rohlfs’s experimentation with historic forms and within his own innovative lexicon of forms and structures grew to a feverish pitch, most notably in two masterpiece chair forms, the Tall Back Chair (Princeton University Art Museum) and Desk Chair (Metropolitan Museum of Art).(2) Few objects from 1901 exhibit more creativity than the Revolving Music Stand and Holder offered here, the only known example of the form.

    The year 1901 was momentous for Rohlfs. Having come a long way from his first efforts and with a few years of experience, he was poised to create some of the most significant designs of his short-lived career in artistic furniture and to participate as an organizer and leading participant in the Pan American. The complexity of the Revolving Music Stand is connected to a line of designs by Rohlfs that attempt to integrate disparate uses in the tradition of American and British Victorian forms that synthesize odd assemblages of seeming utility. Like the Rotating Desk that preceded its design, the Revolving Music Stand exhibits a uniquely inventive structure, based upon a footed platform, which forms the center of gravity for the case and an anchor for the metal bolt that is screwed down into its center, providing the fulcrum on which the lower cabinet spins on a system of small wheels embedded in the base. The cabinet resting upon this base is a survey of important early elements, with exceptional carved ornamentation.

    Where the Rotating Desk employed fretted panels with burlap backing (as this model may have previously), here each principal face is set with a superb rectangular carved panel of looping and interlocking ribbons and orbs comparable to some of Rohlfs’ most accomplished carving. Shaped and carved arms extend from both sides of the cabinet to hold extendable shelves and music stand, which when employed accentuate the Victorian convolutions of the design. Both ends of the cabinet demonstrate elements from the Rotating Desk, one side with a set of drawers, the other an elaborate door with wooden strap hinges terminating in three asymmetrically arranged carved medallions. The expressed hinges are made almost entirely of wood, as is the elegant pinning mechanism that closes the door at its proper left edge. Above the cabinet, the upper shelf is held in place by pierced and carved arms that rival Rohlfs’s most extraordinary designs. Anchoring to the cabinet top, frenzies of truly three-dimensional looping and coiling ribbons or flames are strongly reminiscent of the fame finials on the Rotating Desk.(3) Just below, a pair of lobed moldings conceals the juncture between lower and upper registers,
    again similar to the overlapping decoration which preserves overall unity in the Rotating Desk design. Carved decorative corbels flank the columns of the Revolving Music Stand, topped with marvelous octagonal finials, similar to Rohlfs’ Ladder Back Chair, but with additional carving in the form of eight fiddlehead spirals extending from the corners.(4)

    At the moment when Rohlfs created the Revolving Music Stand, he was building an incredible range of objects and a small clientele in Buffalo, New York and Chicago, enjoying significant attention the Pan American Exposition, and attracting great admiration from the American and European design press. One excellent example of this coverage is the article entitled “Furniture: Designed and Made by Charles Rohlfs,” in Art Education, which illustrated the Revolving Music Stand amidst many of his most iconic designs.(5) It is possible that the Music Stand was exhibited at the Pan-American Exposition, along with, for example, his incredible Bed with Canopy, shown there and illustrated in Art Education.(6) In addition to the Bed, the article put the Music Stand in the company of Rohlfs’ Cube Chair, Cube Chair with Medallions, Hall Chair and masterpiece Folding Screen (High Museum of Art, Atlanta).(7) Clearly, given the primacy of this article, written at the time of Rohlfs’ triumphant exhibition of works at the Pan-American, he likely curated the illustrations very carefully, emphasizing the importance of the Revolving Music Stand.

    Rohlfs may have made the Music Stand for his own use, but more likely it was sold to a local Buffalo client as it seems to have been altered shortly after it was made. The large carved panels on both primary faces were originally fretted designs, and seem to have been replaced quickly with the carved examples now present.(8) In the context of Rohlfs’s evolving carving style, these panels appear to date to the period 1902 to 1904, after which it is unlikely that his workshop would have been able to complete such complex and virtuosic designs.(9) Truly a survey of Rohlfs’s most unusual structures and significant designs elements, the emergence of the Revolving Music Stand and Holder offers a rare glimpse into his creative approach to case furniture and unusual vision of beauty.

    Joseph Cunningham, PhD, Curatorial Director, Leeds Art Foundation and
    author of The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs (Yale U Press 2008)

    1. Examples of these two objects have entered the collections of many American museums including Art Institute of Chicago, Dallas Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, St. Louis Art Museum; see Joseph Cunningham, The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs (AFCR). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008, pp. 65-79.
    2. See AFCR, pages 94-103.
    3. See AFCR, page 79.
    4. Examples of the Ladder Back Chair are held in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art; see AFCR, p. 121.
    5. “Furniture Designed and Made by Charles Rohlfs,” Art Education, January 1901, pp. 225-229.
    6. See AFCR, pp. 148-150.
    7. See AFCR, pp. 146; 125; 71-75; 140-143.
    8. It is also possible that two cabinets were made, one with fretted decoration, the other carved.
    9. This kind of reworking of designs and decoration is known, for example, in the Standing Desk, made in 1902 and altered by Rohlfs in 1904; see AFCR pp. 167-173.


"Revolving music stand and holder"

Stained white oak, hand-wrought copper. Each drawer interior with original green stain.
49 x 46 1/2 x 45 in. (124.5 x 118.1 x 114.3 cm)
Carved and painted with the "sign of the saw" cipher and 1901.

$50,000 - 70,000 

Sold for $56,250

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Meaghan Roddy
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Design Masters

New York Auction 16 December 2014 6pm