P asadena, 1907. This resort town perched out on the far edge of the United States is about to see something truly special. A retiring lumber merchant named Robert R. Blacker has commissioned brothers Charles and Henry Greene to create a home for him and his wife, Nellie. As the structure rises in the lush landscape, it becomes clear this is going to be no ordinary house.
The Greenes have designed every particular, down to the bespoke hand-carved door handles: it’s a total work of art. Yet the tone is relaxed, inviting, almost informal — quintessentially California. That’s partly due to the use of gorgeous woods throughout: imported mahogany, teak and ebony on the inside, massive timbers of old-growth redwood and fir on the exterior. Of these materials, the Greenes have fashioned a masterwork positioned at the intersection of east and west, seamlessly blending ideas borrowed from Japanese architecture with those of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
As part of Design Week, Sotheby’s is auctioning two of the major furniture elements from the Blacker House — a sofa and monumental lantern — as well as an architectural cabinet made for Charles Sumner Greene’s studio at around the same time. This remarkable grouping captures the full genius of Greene and Greene in concentrated form.
The first thing a visitor to the Blacker House would have encountered was this monumental outdoor light, hanging like a beacon under the residence’s porte-cochère — a covered area for arriving vehicles. (In 1907, those vehicles may have been drawn by horse; the first automobiles had arrived in California less than a decade before). The fixture’s green patinated metal and iridescent glass of are emblematic of the Arts and Crafts era. What sets it apart is its elegance of form, its sheer scale — four feet on each side — and the intricacy of its openwork ornamentation.
The principal decorative motif of a vine, curling up into the bracketed corners of the lamp, was carried on throughout the house, including on the front doors nearby (now at the Dallas Museum of Art). The broad hood of the lamp also finds echoes in the house’s roofline, as well as its interior lighting (as in this example at the St. Louis Art Museum). These carefully orchestrated correspondences made the Blacker House a completely unified aesthetic experience: a veritable symphony in wood, glass and metal, with themes and variations.
This beautiful, low-slung sofa is the earlier and more elaborate of two that were made for the Blackers’ living room. (The other, probably dating to about seven years after the house’s completion, is now in the collection of the Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement.) Its long, low and elegant proportions suggest those of a Chinese couch — the product of a people who mostly sat on the floor, elevating themselves by a few inches only to signal a rise in status.
The detailing of the Blacker House sofa is inexpressibly fine: At the top, a long arcing crest rail. To the sides, sculpted arms that unexpectedly ripple down at the front, all the better to rest one’s hands. At the bottom, stretchers racing straight along all four sides, underlining the whole composition. Most striking of all are volutes that curve into the piece’s upright posts, like double parentheses. Positioned at one end of the Blackers’ living room, the sofa would have served as a sort of viewing platform, yielding a vantage on the glorious indoor vista.
As the Blacker House was being constructed in 1907, this architectural cabinet may have already stood in Charles Sumner Greene’s own studio in Carmel. While relatively unadorned in comparison to the luxuriant Blacker furnishings, the design is no less striking: indeed, its relative restraint serves to highlight the Greene brothers’ sense of form. The piece has several features typical of their work, including subtly shaped handles and gently rounded terminations on the moldings. Perhaps most striking is the use of pegs made of iridized glass, inset into the handles of the piece; these introduce a subtle polychromy to the work, somewhat reminiscent of traditional mother-of-pearl.
The principal material is Honduras mahogany, darkened with fuming (a process involving exposure of the timber to ammonia, which causes a chemical reaction in the tannins). This choice sends quite a different message from the sturdy white oak preferred by the likes of Gustav Stickley. Interestingly, a period photo of Charles Greene’s office shows that the piece stood right next to an oak filing cabinet that he himself had made back in 1903, in the Stickley style. The juxtaposition shows the progression of his sensibility: in just a few short years, he went from being an aspirant among Arts and Crafts designers to one of the era’s foremost masters.
Design Week is on view at Sotheby’s New York 3–9 June.