AW Extra 6/6/13 – Greene and Greene Furniture Details

Greene and Greene Furniture Details

An expert
woodworker
talks about what
really gets him
excited.

By Darrell Peart

One of my first trips to see
firsthand the furniture of Charles and
Henry Greene, two early 20th century
architects from Pasadena, California,
was innocent enough: I took a sightseer’s
tour of the house they built in
1908 for David Gamble. I came away
a changed man. And as a furnituremaker,
I was hooked for life.

Few furniture styles are as rich in
detail as Greene and Greene. Details
large and small await in every nook
and cranny of the many homes they
built. Something lures you back for
a second look–most often one of
the many small things you overlooked
at first glance. “Wow! I didn’t
see that! Man! Is that not the neatest
little detail? Look how it blends
seamlessly with the overall design!”
I’ve been known to get pretty
worked up about these things.

 

Details that work together

The Greenes’ designs were never
mass produced. Each piece of furniture
was made for a specific setting,
usually a private house, and each setting
had its own unique set of details.
While some details were common to
the larger style as a whole, most were
specific to one piece of furniture or
an individual room.

I’ve always thought that some elements
in a good design shouldn’t be
apparent at first glance. That’s certainly
true of Greene and Greene furniture.
Many of the details are very small
indeed and do not reveal themselves
readily; they require effort to be seen.

Many commercial millwork shops
have a “three foot” standard to judge
whether a piece is ready to go out
the door. If a defect isn’t visible from
three feet away, the piece passes. This
rule applies in reverse to Greene and
Greene. If you stand three feet away,
you’ll miss much of the design! I’ve
been back to the Gamble House many
times, and on each visit, I’ve made a
new, close-up discovery.

While much of the magic of the
Greene and Greene style lies in its
details, those details, independent of
each other, have little magic. Simply
adding a spattering of great details to
a piece does not by itself make for a
good design. They must be used judiciously,
in context, and work with one
another to create a unified vision.

Charles Greene was a true master
of this. It was his vision and artistic
ability, for the most part, that
brought together so many details to
speak a in a common language. The
mature work of Greene and Greene
always conveyed a strong, organic
sense of unity. Borrowing terms from
biology, their overall style would be
an Order; each house, a Family; each
room, a Genus; and each piece, a different
Species.

There are far too many Greene and
Greene details to cover here. I’ll highlight
the most common and better
known ones, and add a few I’ve been
drawn to that are not well known.

 

The spell of Japan

Japanese and Asian motifs played an
important role in the Greenes’ designs.
C. R. Ashbee, a leader in the English
Arts & Crafts Movement, visited
Charles Greene in Pasadena. Ashbee
later said, “Like Lloyd Wright, the spell
of Japan is upon him.”

 

The cloud lift

The cloud lift was one of the more
common details employed by the
Greenes. It’s essentially a rise in a horizontal
line that’s formed by two connecting
arcs. Stylized clouds were often
depicted this way in Chinese art, and
cloud lifts were occasionally used in
Asian furniture. Not all of the Greenes’
cloud lifts are alike, though. They could
be large and bold or very small and
delicate (Photos 1 & 2). Most often,
they were somewhere in between.

Many Greene and Greene-inspired
woodworkers have searched for an
equation or a set of rules for drawing
cloud lifts, but I don’t think there’s any
magic formula. Changing one or both
of the arcs can dramatically alter this
detail’s character. I work in CAD, and
often stretch or compress a cloud lift,
looking for the right shape. My advice
for drawing a cloud lift is to simply
draw and re-draw it until it looks right
for the piece you’re building. Context
is everything.

 

Brackets

Scholars believe the Greenes’ brackets
were inspired by the low, swooping
rafters used in Japanese temples. This detail is often repeated by contemporary
woodworkers, but the
Greenes employed them on only
three furniture projects, using a different
design each time. The earliest
example of this detail used on
furniture is in the Adelaide Tichenor
house of 1904 (Photo 3), where they
employed a single puffy loop. By 1906,
in the Robinson House (Photo 4), the
bracket gains a bit of sophistication,
displaying a concave surface.

The brackets reached their maturity
in 1907 in the Blacker House living
room furniture (Photo 5). These brackets
are the most successful in conveying
a visual sense of strength to the
joint between leg and rail. The smaller
loop appears to be adding support to
the larger loop.

On all three variations, the bracket
is let into the rail and leg ever so
slightly. This small feature enhances
the design in a very subtle way–one
you can’t see from three feet away.

 

The tsuba

A tsuba is a Japanese sword guard, separating
the blade from the handle. Often
found in museums, tsubas are genuine
works of art and come in a variety of
shapes. Charles Greene collected them
and often employed a double ovoid
tsuba shape as a design element.

Walking through the Gamble
House, you’ll see tsubas in a number
of places, from the outline of the dining
room table top, to a chair back
detail, electrical plates, doorbell plates,
lamp base and more (Photo 6).

 

Elements of structure
as adornment

The furniture of the American Arts &
Crafts Movement celebrated joinery by
exposing it to view. Elements of structure,
such as through tenons and the
pins that hold mortise and tenon joints
together, became part of a piece’s
design. Greene and Greene took this
idea a half step further. They saw those
elements as opportunities for creating
new design details that were not functional,
but purely ornamental.

Knowing that much of the
Greenes’ visible joinery served no
other purpose than decoration, you
might doubt the soundness of the
real joints. Some of their early work
wasn’t constructed to the highest
standards, but
by 1906 the
stage was set
for what would
become a
remarkable collaboration
with
another set of
brothers, John
and Peter Hall. The Hall brothers were
highly skilled Swedish immigrants
believed to have been trained in the
home Sloyd method.

The majority of Greene and Greene
furniture, including all the mature
work, was built by the Halls. The
underlying joinery is quite sound. One
hundred years later, most pieces are in
excellent shape (Photo 7).

 

Ebony plugs

You might think that the ebony plugs
used by the Greenes are an essential
part of the joinery, but most of them
aren’t functional. Some of the plugs
do cover screws, particularly on breadboard
ends, but most plugs are just
set in their own little mortises. Plugs
were placed strategically, usually with
the implication of pinning a tenon, but
occasionally the relationship to joinery
was disregarded and their placement
was based on aesthetics alone.

Plugs were made in an infinite
variety of sizes and shapes. When
used on furniture, the plugs were
slightly pillowed and proud, but in low
profile. On built-ins, the treatment of
the plugs varied widely. Some have
surfaces that are almost flat, while others
have a much more pronounced
domed face (Photos 8 & 10).

 

Exposed ebony spline

The breadboard end is a classic woodworking
technique used to prevent a
flat panel from warping. Traditionally,
breadboard ends were flush with the
panel, but Greene and Greene made
their breadboard ends proud, both
on the top and sides (Photo 9). They
also added a long ebony spline to the
sides of the joint. The breadboard was
functional, but the ebony spline was
for decoration only–the actual working
spline remained hidden inside.

Faux ebony splines were also used
where the back leg of a chair meets
the crest rail (Photo 11). There’s a real
mortise and tenon joint inside, but the
spline is not a functional part of the
joint. Perhaps one of the most notable
and successful uses of a faux ebony
spline was on the Blacker living room
armchair (lead photo, above). The spline is quite
prominent at the point where the arm
joins the front leg.

 

Exposed finger joints

Greene and Greene employed proud,
exposed finger joints in a number of
instances, (Photo 12), but they were most notably used for drawer fronts.
Drawer fingers were usually in lower
profile than fingers on casework. On
all joints, the fingers were usually
“pinned” with an ebony plug, but I
don’t know whether there are screws
or dowels beneath most of the plugs.

 

Waterfall shelves

A really good designer can transform
an apparent problem into a positive
design feature. As most woodworkers
know, bookshelves that must carry a
lot of weight have to be made extrathick,
or be supported underneath.
From an aesthetic point of view, both
of these choices are undesirable. The
Greenes solved this problem in a
beautiful way.

Seen from the front, the built-in
bookshelves in the Thorsen House
living room are relatively thin and
pleasing to the eye (Photo 13). A
closer inspection reveals yet another
delightful Greene and Greene detail:
a sort of waterfall effect on the underside.
The waterfall detail is in reality
a clever method to add thickness
and strength to the shelf, but it also
enhances the beauty of the piece.

 

Back splat connectors

The backs of several Greene and
Greene chairs have small decorative
connectors joining the splats (Photo
14). While their usefulness may be
debatable, the connectors’ value as a
design feature is not. On the Gamble
House living room chairs, the splats
appear to be pulling apart, while the
connectors exert an opposite force,
giving the impression of holding the
splats in check.

 

Relief detail

The relief detail has a profound effect
on the overall design, but it’s a very
simple concept: every element exists
in its own plane. No two surfaces are
allowed to meet at the same level.
Every level is rounded over before
dropping down to the next level.
Relief adds depth and shadow, highlighting
each and every structural
component of the design (Photo 15).
Even when the Greenes used inlay, it
was in relief, proud of its surrounding
surfaces.

 

Leg details

Charles Greene apparently did not like
simply pulling a classic design detail
off the shelf and borrowing it. He had
to give it a distinctive Greene and
Greene twist. Such is the case with a
couple of leg bottom details.

The waterfall leg is a take on the
classic detail of tapering the two
inside faces of a leg, making the leg
increasingly narrow as it reaches
the floor. The waterfall leg tapers
in a series of three short steps that
are shaped as vertical cloud lifts
(Photo 16).

The Blacker House armchair’s legindent
detail anchors the design to
the ground, like a classic claw and ball
foot. The indent pushes down and
transfers the weight of the piece to
the very bottom of the leg.

 

See it up close

I hope this article whets your appetite
for more Greene and Greene design.
May you someday make the pilgrimage
to Pasadena and see their work as
it should be experienced–in person.
Soak it in, and make your own little
discoveries. But beware–Greene and
Greene may become habit-forming.

Click any image to view a larger version.

1. These cloud lifts are large and bold. The ebony
plugs look like structural components, but they’re
just decorative. Gamble House living room rocker

2. The cloud lifts on this built-in cupboard are
smaller and more delicate than those on the rocker.
Thorsen House

3. This is an early example of the Greenes’ bracket
detail
. Chair from the Tichenor House, 1904

4. A later single bracket is slightly concave.
Robinson house dining room chair, 1906

5. A double bracket helps convey a sense of
strength to the joint between leg and rail. Blacker
House chair; reproduction by Darrell Peart

6. This detail of a footboard shows a pierced
tsuba (a stylized Japanese sword guard) and
raised inlay. Gamble House master bedroom

7. These spline and butterfly details are an early
example of stylized joinery. Robinson House,
1906

8. The top edges of these ebony plugs follow
the upward arc of the crest rail, a detail that’s
easy to miss. Gamble House master bedroom

9. This classic Greene and Greene breadboard
end has exposed ebony spline. Thorsen house
sideboard

10. These ebony plugs appear to cover pins
that go through the tenons, but they’re just
decorative. Gamble House dining room table base

11. This chair’s crest rail also has an exposed
ebony spline
. Thorsen House dining room chair

12. In this detail from the underside of a table, a
box joint has proud and pillowed fingers that
are “pinned” by ebony plugs. Thorsen House dining
table

13. The waterfall shelf detail is an ingenious
and beautiful solution for adding strength.
Thorsen House living room bookshelves

14. This chair’s center splat appears to be pulling
apart, but the ebony connectors secure the two
halves in place. Gamble House living room rocker

15. The Greenes were masters of relief. Every
structural element exists in its own plane and is
rounded over before stepping down to the next
level. Drawer from the Thorsen house

16. The waterfall leg is a new take on a classic
tapered leg. Chair from the Gamble House master
bedroom

More information about
Greene and Greene

 

Websites

• To see many more examples of Greene and
Greene furniture, visit the Greene & Greene
Virtual Archives at www.usc.edu/dept/architecture/
greeneandgreene/

• To join online discussions with Greene and
Greene woodworkers and scholars, visit the
Greene & Greene group at Yahoo. Go to www.
groups.yahoo.com/group/Greene-style-furniture/join

• To contribute to the ongoing restoration of
the Thorsen House go to www.calsigmaphi.org

• To see a fully restored Greene and Greene
masterpiece, and for the ultimate thrill, visit
The Gamble House at www.gamblehouse.org

• Just a few miles from the Gamble house is
the Huntington Library, home of a large display
of Greene and Greene furniture. For more
information, go to www.huntington.org

 

Selected Books

• Greene & Greene: Design Elements for the
Workshop
, Darrell Peart (2006). Step-by-step
instructions for re-creating Greene and
Greene details and a condensed history of
their work.

• Greene & Greene: Furniture and Related Designs,
Randell Makinson (1979). The most comprehensive
book on Greene and Greene furniture.
It’s out of print but well worth a search.

• Greene & Greene, Edward R. Bosley (2003). This
is the most thorough history of Greene and
Greene architecture and furnishings.

• Shop Drawings for Greene & Greene Furniture:
23 American Arts and Crafts Masterpieces
,
Robert Lang (2006). A wonderful book of measured
drawings.

• Greene & Greene: Masterworks, Bruce Smith
and Alexander Vertikoff (1998). An informative
book, with beautiful photography.

• A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of
Greene & Greene
, Edited by Edward R. Bosley
and Anne E. Mallek. A fascinating book with
contributions from several leading Greene &
Greene scholars.

• Greene & Greene: Poems of Light and Wood,
David Mathias, Coming September 2010. The
first book to focus on the details themselves,
with fabulous photography.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December/January 2010, issue #145.

Purchase this back issue.