Friday, December 18, 2009

A Rare Chair

By EJF, Honorary Chair

L and below:  Rohlfs dining chair from the collection of David Whitney 

The Martin family collection of furnishings includes a virtual who's-who of turn-of-the-twentieth-century designers.  Pieces by Stickley, Tiffany and Heintz Art Metal graced the Martin House c. 1907, and many of these remain in the collection today.  But one distinctive Arts and Crafts designer - Charles Rohlfs - is represented only at the periphery of this collection.

For years, an anecdote circulated that "the Martins" once owned a "Rohlfs dining chair or chairs" - an urban myth, perhaps, but a tantalizing one, given Rohlfs' legendary stature as one of most original designers associated with the Arts and Crafts scene of Western New York.  This tale remained unsubstantiated until 2006, when a Rohlfs chair with provenance pertaining to the Martin family came to light in Sotheby's sale of the collection of David Whitney.  

The Whitney chair can be traced confidently to "Mrs. D. R. Martin," though it is unclear which of the three wives of Darwin R. Martin was the owner.  The Sotheby's catalog entry attributes the chair originally to Mr. and Mrs. Darwin D. Martin "by repute." Although the chair was made in Buffalo in 1901 and would have been a plausible part of the elder Martins' decor, I consider the attribution unsubstantiated. There is no corroborating evidence that indicates that Darwin D. and Isabelle Martin had such chairs, either in their first home on Summit Avenue, or in the Wright-designed Martin House on Jewett Parkway.

Today, an apparently identical Rohlfs chair is included in the touring exhibition, "The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs" (American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation).  This example is from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.  Additionally, other examples of the same chair are found in the LA County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Two Red Roses Foundation.  The question remains: were these five chairs once part of the same dining suite?   

Given Darwin and Isabelle Martin's well-known interest in Arts and Crafts furnishings, it's tempting to think that they may have had a set of four to six of these chairs around a dining table in their Summit Avenue home.  But until we can connect these "dots" more clearly, we only know that one of their daughters-in-law once had one of these throne-like chairs, but apparently abdicated her throne years ago.  

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