Greene & Greene: Awakening of a Style
The Greene & Greene style. Rich woods bathed in sunlight are an integral part of the style. The best-known Greene & Greene work, the David Gamble house (above) is similarly stunning. The period details are intact, and the house transports visitors to 1908.
One hundred years ago, two brothers were in the midst of an amazing period of creative success. The result was a unique, enduring style that is instantly recognizable. The brothers were Charles and Henry Greene, and the style is a synthesis of Arts & Crafts with Asian influences, a casual California sensibility and obsessive attention to detail.
Few understand the work of Greene & Greene better than Jim Ipekjian. While visiting a Greene & Greene home with him, he pointed out a difference in two details at the stairs. After more than a decade in the house, the home’s surprised owner had not noticed the subtle distinction. This is likely common as the Greenes put considerable thought and effort into details that few would notice, or have the opportunity to see.
Greene & Greene’s earliest commissions were modest but well executed homes in the style of the day. Within a decade of opening their practice, they were working on more substantial homes and began designing the interiors as well.
Drawings from1903 depict rooms incorporating built-ins and Stickley pieces. By the next year they were designing complete environments down to lighting fixtures and fireplace tools. Two years later the firm was designing most of the furniture and household items for truly grand residences, now known as “Ultimate Bungalows.”
The Blacker, Ford, Gamble, Pratt and Thorsen houses, built between 1907 and 1910, constitute an amazing body of work in a fully realized, mature style; the culmination of a brief yet astounding period of development.
This article is the first in a series examining the Greene & Greene style and a marvelous evolution. The focus here is a broad overview of how the style evolved. The next article will explore details of the brothers’ well-known furniture designs. Even everyday objects can be beautiful, so the third article will focus on doors as well as kitchen and bath cabinets.
The Vocabulary of the Style
Attempting to deconstruct and explain a masterpiece is a risky business. We can describe component parts but any narrative is bound to be incomplete – genius is always more than the sum of its parts. Yet an understanding of those parts, the design vocabulary, is helpful.
Greene & Greene designs are rich with many notable elements. Among the bestknown are cloudlift forms, ebony pegs and breadboard ends. Lifts and pegs, in particular, have been the subject of countless words and rightly so. They are beautiful and essential to the look and feel of the style.
Other elements are equally important but less well-known. These include finger joints, “tsuba” shapes (a tsuba is a Japanese sword guard), carved details, wonderful handles and pulls, and intricate inlays.
A “typical” piece of Greene & Greene furniture, if such an item exists, is constructed of mahogany or teak with ebony accents. The shapes are organic and sensuous. The silky surfaces shimmer and beg to be touched. At their cores these designs are straightforward. Visual interest is seen in subtle ways. Light and shadow are critical and help to unify furniture designs and surrounding architecture.
In a Greene & Greene home, it is difficult to tell exactly where furniture ends and interior woodwork begins. Materials and execution are similarly beautiful; the only practical difference is that the furniture can be moved. Common elements among furniture and architectural elements enhance the effect.
Each piece of furniture was designed to occupy a place in a particular room. There were no generic forms designed to fit into many settings. This allows commonality of design within a room or entire interior. Themes continue outside where some details make another appearance, blurring the distinction between inside and outside.
Some design elements appear repeatedly in both furniture and architecture. Others are used less often. In some cases, a feature is used throughout a house. In others, it may be limited to one room. A good example is the brackets that appear on furniture in the Blacker house living room.
Brackets are used elsewhere in the house (on windows), and to a lesser extent in other houses, but the double bracket is quite limited. Similarly, a detail in the Robinson house living room is almost unknown elsewhere in the Greene canon. There, a built-in cabinet and the mantle both exhibit vertical elements with a strongly curved front surface.
This is quite a departure from the Arts & Crafts norm. Finger joints, on the other hand, are ubiquitous in furniture and trim. They vary significantly but share the same general form and are unmistakably Greene & Greene.
The Greene & Greene style was not static. It grew and developed at an exhilirating rate. The earliest furniture, for the Tichenor house (1904), was not surprisingly influenced by Stickley. Charles was a regular reader of The Craftsman magazine and the Greenes recommended Stickley pieces for homes where they did not design furniture.
By the time of the Blacker house (1907), the Greenes had established a unique American style and some of the most exquisite furniture ever produced in this country. By the time the Thorsen furniture was completed in 1913, they had designed a mind-boggling number of fantastic pieces in a few short years. The term “evolution” seems inadequate to describe work at such a scale and pace.
So what changed? It is easy to point to the elements of the design vocabulary as the answer, but the reality is more complex. Some elements, such as lifts, were present in the earliest pieces and some later pieces are quite simple yet clearly superior to their predecessors. Intangibles play a significant role.
The rapid development of the Greenes’ trademark style after 1905 was made possible by the fact that they could depend on talented craftsmen to implement their designs. In 1905, their firm began working with contractor Peter Hall and his brother, John Hall.
The first project was the Robinson house, a stunning, beautiful mansion. The first commission on such a scale, this house presaged the work the Greenes and Halls would do for the Ultimate Bungalows. It stands as a testament to what Charles could achieve with a substantial budget and skilled artisans.
Some speculate that there was a good-natured competition between the Greenes and the Halls. The Greenes would design increasingly difficult pieces and the Halls would up the ante by delivering flawless execution, as if to say, “Is that all you’ve got?”
In the final analysis, it’s impossible to express a formula for a well-designed Greene & Greene piece. Adequate evidence for this exists in the form of poor imitations. Even many “reproductions” are lacking.
Though the style is hard to define, there are words that 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 component parts. Nothing is 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? The answer is nothing. It’s difficult to imagine it any other way. PW
Harmony from floor to ceiling. No photo can do justice to the Blacker living room – it is perfect. Many consider these armchairs to be the ultimate Greene & Greene furniture design. The double brackets appear on furniture throughout the room, faithfully reproduced by Jim Ipekjian.