Modern, primitive, theatrical
Fascinating piece in the...Antiques section!
[Charles] Rohlfs, a Brooklyn native, had studied engineering at Cooper Union around 1870 and then started designing stove parts for a living while acting part time, mostly in Shakespearean tragedies. (Theater critics called his performances “painful to witness” and “screamingly funny instead of sad.”) His fortunes turned in 1884: he married Anna Katharine Green, a best-selling detective novelist seven years his senior. Despite occasional paralyzing bouts of depression, she published a career total of some 40 books.
“People had a voracious appetite for her work,” Mr. Cunningham said. “The writing sounds stilted now, but it was very modern for the time, and her enormous royalties freed her husband to do whatever he wanted.”
In 1887 the couple moved to Buffalo, where Rohlfs worked briefly for a stove manufacturer and then set up a workshop with a few freelance carvers. He channeled his theatrical tendencies into design. He suspended wall cabinets from thick chains like medieval moat crossings and sliced table bases with so much filigree that they seem deceptively unstable.
His desks are riddled with secret compartments and have finials shaped like leaping flames. Cell-like honeycombs are stretched taut across the backs of his chairs...
A few wealthy patrons...commissioned custom pieces. Rohlfs exhibited at some international fairs, including the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901, and he wangled a distribution contract from Marshall Field & Company in Chicago. It advertised his designs as “so primitive yet so new and modern that they excite wonder.” But they did not catch on.
“The work was so radical it defied categorization,” Mr. Cunningham said. “People must have thought it was positively freakish.”
Much more at NYT.
Wife's obit here: 'The Leavenworth Case' in '78 Followed by 36 Other Books — Wife of Charles Rohlfs, WANTED TO WRITE POETRY Wrote Detective Stories to Draw Attention to Her Verse — Changed Mystery Fiction.
(I like this bit, Green saying: "The plot should be so clear and concise that if it were given in the curt language of a telegram it should be interesting.")
Paging Paul Collins!