Greene & Greene Furniture, Poems of Wood & Light
By David MathiasPublished by Popular Woodworking BooksCopyright 2010ISBN 978-1-4403-0299-2
Book Review by Michael Malone, AIA
Books about early twentieth century California architects Greene & Greene fall into two basic categories: Serious scholarship with beautiful photographs and no scholarship with beautiful photographs. In many cases their work is simply too beautiful to require the reading of text to explain it and looking at the pictures is eminently satisfying. The lifetime oeuvre of buildings and furniture by the highly gifted brothers Charles Sumner Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Mather Greene (1870-1954) is well documented in both the popular and academic architectural press. Their extant works are extensively catalogued, exemplary in their execution and quite simply gorgeous. The last few years have seen a pronounced increase in attention to their work (completely justifiable) and the proliferation of “pretty” books that provide ample images but do very little to help with an understanding of their specific contributions to the architectural canon. I own and have read, most of the published materials on the Greene brothers and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the two best writers (in my opinion) on the subject to date, Randell L. Makinson and Edward R. Bosley (former and current directors respectively of The Gamble House, Pasadena, California). Additionally, I’ve seen several of the Greene brothers’ projects first hand, often on so called VIP tours that included access to areas not available to the general public and with ample presentation of the details and specialized fabrications of the various projects. The work inspires and enchants me, as a practicing architect not only for the beauty of its design, but the exceptional craft of its execution. This uncompromising quality of construction and the obsessive attention to every detail is an area of some deliberation and discussion in most of the Greene literature but at a micro level David Mathias, in his new book, explains and presents the details in an enlightened and accessible way that left me wondering how I’d missed so much on my four visits to the Gamble House and my one (very long) visit to the Blacker House.
Mathias comes to an appreciation of the Greene’s through an interest in woodworking, a hobby that for him includes the design and fabrication of Greene & Greene inspired furniture pieces. Anyone who has spent any time looking at the millwork components of the Greene’s houses already knows it is some of the best architectural woodwork built by anyone at any time. Mathias’s close observation of the use of wood in the Greene’s works and how he could apply it to projects of his own became first an interest, then a passion. He has visited and documented with photographs many of the Greene’s buildings and further traveled the country in search of lone Greene artifacts long since distributed to museums and collectors. His intense examination of the work lead to the writing of this book and specifically to an analysis of the way wood is utilized, detailed and finished to such superb results by the Greene’s. He catalogues details, joints, decorative work, inlays, art glass, metal and how these fall into patterns in the Greene’s work. Mathias further looks into unique elements of their work as they were applied to specific projects, the result a useful compendium for seeing and understanding just how exceptional the work is.
Mathias provides an overview of the Greene’s careers which is useful in framing the context of their work, but where the book is most interesting is his approach to the various woodworking elements of the Greene oeuvre and explanations in detail not only why a detail is beautiful, but just how very much was involved in getting it right. He rightly describes the feeling of sensory overload inherent in visiting a Greene & Greene building, and compounds the feeling by describing in detail all the things you typically have to tune out to have any comprehension of the spaces at all.
The description of the use of ebony pegs and spline pieces in many of the Greene’s furniture pieces is comprehensive and interesting, but by far the use of this brittle and exotic wood that most intrigued me was as a top edge to a typical box drawer. Here the beautiful dark wood is contrasted with the lighter body of the drawer and secured to the top with brass pins. The installation of the pins had long puzzled those trying to understand the Greene’s work, until it was determined these were not rods or pins at all, but ordinary brass screws, the heads of which had been filed down after their installation to eliminate the screw heads altogether!
Certain of Mathias’s insights are especially telling. Much has been made of the exquisite craft and artisanship visible in the furniture designed by Greene and Greene as part of the total environments created for their client’s houses. Often, the design for this furniture was included as one of the sheets of drawings that were part of the documents created for the construction of the house. Within these drawing sets are plans, elevations and other details, all drawn in a competent, but hardly descriptive way. At best these drawings are often schematic, it would be impossible to build the furniture (let alone the houses themselves) to the level of craft and detail present in the final object just by looking at the drawings. It is obvious that the Greene’s had to have committed an enormous amount of time working closely with the people actually building the furniture and houses, so not only was their involvement supervisory, it necessarily involved expanding on the design and the projects as they were executed.
Another insight the book provides is the realization that Greene & Greene often designed the decorative and furniture objects for their most celebrated works over an extended period of time. Sometimes various pieces of the furniture were commissioned or delivered years later, exhibiting greater refinement and perhaps a new expression on the prevailing themes of the house. What architect wouldn’t like to amend or refine parts of a completed project afterwards, for the Greene’s this seems to have been a fairly common process. One example discussed by Mathias is the stunning Gamble writing desk, completed many years after the Gambles first occupied the house. The Gamble House was complete in 1909 and the desk in 1914, a full five years after the Gambles moved in. This pattern seems to be true (though rarely spread over this long a period for many of the furniture pieces in many of the houses).
Too much of this kind of thing, being reminded of the artistry and the attentiveness to every aspect of the work at hand, simply overwhelmed me while reading the book. As a practicing architect I marvel at the intellectual and emotional investment the Greene’s had to provide in order to execute these exceptional details. In reading the book and discovering one detail and nuance to their work after another, one question occurred to me repeatedly. Why did the Greene’s obsess so much over these seemingly insignificant details that could be seen by so few (it’s doubtful the owners of the houses ever pulled bookcases out from the walls to exclaim that the backs were as beautifully detailed and finished as the fronts)? Could they have known that posterity would judge them and evaluate them not only for what is seen at first observation in their work but also what is hidden? The motivation is exceptional, rigorous and in many cases sublime. As a mirror held up to those of us practicing today, it can almost engender shame. The same could easily be said of those who are carpenters, make woodwork and install trim and fixtures in houses and other buildings. Mathias provides the mirror and the reflections are all too clear. Like any good book it leaves you with a lot to ponder, but is tremendously satisfying as a way of better understanding an exceptional pair of architects and their unique and wonderful work.
Michael Malone, AIA is the founding principal of Michael Malone Architects, Inc. in Dallas, Texas and the author of The Architects Guide to Residential Design from McGraw Hill. His firm’s website is: www.mma2000.com