Experiencing the creative work of architectural brothers, Greene & Greene, is like sipping a rare, richly-made wine—offering sensory delights from the firm of two authentic American Arts and Crafts masters. As the brothers Greene—Charles and Henry—worked primarily in California, they created the ‘gold standard’ for the Arts and Crafts design style. Their work, both as entire projects and in the detail found there, serves as an exquisite example of design, presented in clear, concise and elegant terms. artes fine arts magazine
The American Arts and Crafts Movement grew out of the writings and philosophy of British social essayists and artists, John Ruskin and William Morris. They wrote in reaction to a rapidly-expanding industrialized society, which was increasingly based on machine-made and mass-produced goods. They claimed this trend was dehumanizing, leading to the creation of inauthentic products. Instead, they advocated for a production model that relied on handcraftsmanship, as exemplified by members of time-honored medieval guilds.
Their goal was to encourage the creation of elegant—but simply-enhanced—everyday objects of practical design. According to MFA Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts, Sculpture and Art in America, Nonie Gadsden, “The Arts and Crafts Movement was not a specific style, but a philosophy about a way of life, in which art played an integral role.”
This philosophy—espousing the connections between nature, art and society—was attractive to many prominent and influential Boston architects, designers, educators, arts patrons and craftspeople. The group included General Charles Loring, the first director of the Museum of Fine Arts; Charles Eliot Norton, the first art history professor at Harvard University, who was a friend of Ruskin; collectors; and MFA trustees William Sturgis Bigelow and Denman Ross, among others. Architect H. Langford Warren, founder of the architecture program at Harvard University, and its first dean of architecture, was a major proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Warren worked under architect, H.H. Richardson, before setting up his own practice. This Boston group went on to form The Society of Arts and Crafts, in 1897. They pledged “to develop and encourage higher artistic standards in the handicrafts,” through mentoring, education and exhibitions.
Some of the advocates of the Arts and Crafts style focused on fostering its back-to-basics philosophy for social reform, including the establishment of utopian artist communities and craft training for immigrant girls. This initiative led, for example, to the formation of the Saturday Evening Girls Club (1899), providing income for Boston’s Italian and Jewish community. These young women produced inviting painted pottery and tea sets, based on Paul Revere-inspired designs—works that are shown in museums today and are highly prized among collectors.
Regional variations on the Arts and Crafts movement can be seen in Gustav Stickley’s furniture, produced by his utopian, United Crafts Workshops, in Eastwood, NY. Influences can also be seen in the designs of architect, Ralph Adams Cram, who drew upon medieval European styles. Cram designed many buildings for Princeton University and Boston’s Roxbury-Latin School.
At the same time, many other initiatives, trending toward a rejection of Victorian design embellishments and a return to simpler times, were underway around the country. Some architects and designers in the Northeast were inspired by the lean Colonial Revival style. Their counterparts in the Midwest developed a rectilinear asymmetric, an aesthetic that promoted simplicity and harmony with the landscape. Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School, most notably, espoused this approach–one that included a total unification of architecture and design, and that included a distinctive horizontal design and the use of color, texture and repetitive patterns to enhance the natural setting surrounding the structure. The architecture firm of Greene & Greene helped shape the California Arts and Crafts aesthetic, integrating the West Coast region’s Spanish and Mexican legacy into their designs. Greene & Greene were particularly known for their regionally-inspired “bungalows.”
Adhering to a design philosophy of the creation of useful beauty—or beauty with a purpose—the architecture and decorative arts designs of Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957), left, and his brother, Henry Mather Greene (1870-1954), below right, are now recognized among the best in the American Arts and Craft movement. The Greene’s work demonstrates careful attention to detail in every building, piece of furniture or functional object they created. This included thoughtful consideration of geographical setting, climate, landscape and client lifestyle, along with a particular sensitivity to natural setting.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Greene brothers spent their early, formative at the progressive Manual Training School at Washington University, in St. Louis. Yet, with Boston Brahmin and generations of New England ancestors as a family legacy (as their individual middle names, Sumner and Mather, suggest), the Greene family had a sophisticated upper-class attitude toward education and training of their children. Though living in the Midwest, their parents had schooled both of their sons at experimental and practically-oriented secondary schools. Though the family was not wealthy, Charles and Henry were certainly fostered by their parents to achieve creatively.
They attended MIT’s School of Architecture together, then the oldest and most prestigious formal school of architecture in the United States. The Greene’s grandfather had been an architect as well. While in Boston, they took in prominent exhibitions of Japanese prints and decorative objects at the Museum of Fine Arts—where they also took drawing and watercolor classes. This had a strategic influence on their work. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ‘gentlemen’ often did not complete degrees, but took enough courses and study to develop skills. This seems to be particularly true of engineers and architects. After three years of training at MIT, receiving only a certificate of architecture study, not degrees, the brothers decided to start their practical training for their professional practice by apprenticing to established small firms. (Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, was notorious for bragging that he did not receive a degree in architecture, disdaining university training over much of his career. Actually, he attended the University of Wisconsin for almost three years taking engineering courses, primarily).
The Greene brothers’ early professional apprenticeships were with various Boston architectural firms, many of whose staff had been formerly employed by, or apprenticed to, the prominent master architect, Henry Hudson Richardson, thus laying the groundwork for their innovative and elegant style, which was to follow later in their careers. They resided in Boston from 1888 to 1893. After that they moved to California to start their own practice.
The legacy of the Greene brothers’ most productive period included distinguished architecture and decorative arts objects and furniture. These included exquisitely inlaid furniture, furniture crafted in exotic hardwoods, colorful, but restrained stain glass, and extraordinarily elegant metalwork and fittings.
Several years ago, a traveling exhibit was developed to celebrate the centennial of the Gamble House—a Greene & Greene design (1907-09), in Pasadena, California (ironically, one of the ten stops for the exhibit was Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts). The Gamble house is the pinnacle of Greene & Greene design.
The Gamble House was designed for the visionary and sophisticated family that founded the Proctor and Gamble Corporation. In 1966, heirs of Cecil and Louise Gamble donated the house and its furnishings (all by Greene & Greene) to the City of Pasadena, and to the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California (USC). The structure and its contents are the best-preserved and most comprehensive example of any of the Greene’s major projects. The house is now operated as a historic site and research facility. It is open to the public for tours. In 1980, a permanent exhibition of Greene and Greene decorative arts was opened at the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art, in San Marino, California.
If there is a conceptual laying-on-of-hands in the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Greene brothers probably were influenced significantly by Scotsman, Charles Rennie MacKintosh. His work impacted many European designers, as well. In fact Charles and his wife traveled to Great Britain and throughout Europe, visiting many architects and designers and viewing their built projects. Even Frank Lloyd Wright acknowledged their work, although he tried to credit himself for influencing them, rather than perhaps the other way around! Design and architecture was widely published, read, and studied in that period. So, architects and designers had to be knowledgeable about contemporaneous work, if they wanted to remain current.
The traveling exhibition includes 120 objects, showcasing the range and quality of materials that Greene & Greene selected, working collaboratively with some of the finest artisans and craftsmen in California. The exhibition is presented chronologically, featuring 25 of the brothers’ best-known commissions. The first gallery examines the influences of the Greene brothers when they were in Boston, including Japanese decorative objects with ceramics, metal work and prints. This contact with in the museum’s extensive collection—would later reveal a strong, almost pervasive Japanese influence, on their refined style.
The second section of the show explores the peak years of the brothers’ collaboration. Functional objects demonstrate their unique design vocabulary, their use of traditional, spare, but sometimes decorative wood joinery, as well as their interest in metal as structure and form-giver. These elements combine with the creation of the very California aesthetic which seems to reflect the climate, landscape and available materials, while, at the same time, underscoring the lifestyle of the client or property owner. Every detail, structural element, fenestration, light fixture, textile, piece of furniture and tile was part of an aesthetic whole—created a unified work of art.
Unlike their contemporary, Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene & Greene gave great credit to their collaborating craftsmen. California-based firms like that of furniture makers, Peter and John Hall, were not only credited, but were truly part of the Greene & Greene design team. The Halls were often inspired by the Greenes’s vision to fabricate some of the finest pieces produced during this period. These pieces of furniture are treasures in themselves.
Yet, the Greenes’ architectural and design collaboration lasted only a few years. The brothers only worked together from 1894 until 1916. After that, they went their separate ways.
Charles was a dreamer, the artist, who joined an aesthetic and spiritual community. Henry was the more practical one, but needed Charles’ aesthetic vision. The two were much greater together than either alone. The firm, Greene & Greene, was dissolved in 1922.
Their designs had fallen out of fashion, but were luckily rediscovered, and eventually honored, after WWII. In 1952, they were cited by the American Institute of Architects as pioneers in modernism. Sadly, only one of the brothers was healthy enough to attend the awards ceremony. Since that time, the work of Greene & Greene has been venerated and held up as the epitome of unified beauty.
The work of Greene & Greene is the gold standard of American Arts and Crafts, unified design and brilliant collaboration. Here is simple elegance, justified by beauty and purpose—function and form at its most appealing.
By Mark Favermann, Contributing Writer
There is a wonderful catalogue of the Greenes’s work, A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene, edited by Edward R. Bosley and Anne E. Mallek, written for the 2009 traveling exhibition.