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Charles Rohlfs was born in 1853 in Brooklyn, New York and learned woodworking from his cabinetmaker father. At age 14, Rohlfs began studying design at Cooper Union and quickly excelled. After completing his training, Rohlfs did sand-casting patternwork for foundries before taking an extended hiatus to pursue his acting dream. In 1877, Rohlfs met his eventual wife, Anna Katharine Green, who went on to become a novelist of some renown. While Rohlfs never broke through as an actor, his wife’s professional success afforded him the luxury of channeling his design talents more creatively.
In 1887, Rohlfs moved with his wife and their three children from New York City to Buffalo, where Rohlfs worked for a stove manufacturer. After a trip to Europe in 1890, Rohlfs began to produce dramatically carved “artistic furniture” with his trademark sign-of-the-saw imposed over the letter ‘R.’ When demand grew, Rohlfs opened his own shop in 1897 and hired the best woodcarvers he could from nearby factories.
Although often associated with Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts, Rohlfs would resist definitive categorization given his eclectic vision and insistence on generating unique, limited lines. Not only did Rohlfs let wood grain dictate how he would carve a given piece, but he also took liberty to embellish furniture with pronounced swirls. For instance, the writing desk and chair he made for Marshall Field & Co. in Chicago in 1899 were elaborate with high, slender profiles. Unusual designs such as these did not sell well generally, but they did boost Rohlfs’ reputation among the arbiters of taste in America and Europe alike.
Until he stopped commercial production in 1907, Rohlfs was highly sought after as a designer of specialized furniture for private homes and clubs in the Buffalo area as well as the Adirondacks. He spent the latter part of his career active in local business and social circles. The last known item that Rohlfs wrought by hand was a lamp to memorialize his son’s passing in a plane crash. Rohlfs himself passed away at age 83 in 1936.Contact a Specialist View all Artists/Makers