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Renwick Gallery: 'A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene'

A national historic landmark, the Gamble House in Pasadena, Calif., is the only one of Charles and Henry Greene's creations that remains intact today with its original fixtures.
A national historic landmark, the Gamble House in Pasadena, Calif., is the only one of Charles and Henry Greene's creations that remains intact today with its original fixtures. (By Alexander Vertikoff)

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 27, 2009

There's a lot of something in "A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene" at the Renwick Gallery.

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Wood, for one thing. It's the dominant aesthetic of the architecture-and-design team of brothers Charles (1868-1957) and Henry (1870-1954) Greene, who flourished a century ago.

The brothers' Pasadena practice produced what are considered some of the most distinctive homes and furniture in the American Arts and Crafts style, California edition. A philosophy as much as a look, the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against industrial, machine-made goods, in favor of artisanal crafts, lovingly built by hand. Several of the works in the show, whose hallmark is soft, rounded corners and exquisite joinery, were made in collaboration with brothers Peter and John Hall, master carpenters and woodworkers from Sweden.

Take a look around you. The warmth of wood is everywhere: chairs, tables, benches, plant stands, paneling. You can smell it. Stand near the reconstruction of a fragment of a home designed in 1903 and breathe deep. That's the aroma of old-growth redwood and Douglas fir, specially milled for this contemporary installation in accordance with the Greenes' period specifications. You can even see the marks of the saw blade on it. Environmentally correct it's not. Old-growth redwood? But, man, is it beautiful.

There's another thing in abundance here. But it's something you might not notice right away. I'm talking about the conjunction "and."

It's there in the title of the show -- not once, but three times.

Greene & Greene, the name of the brothers' design firm.

"Art and Craft," which suggests a timeless beauty beyond the utilitarian here-and-now of, you know, furniture and buildings.

And finally, "New and Native," which alludes to the Greenes' use of materials both exotic, such as mahogany, and commonplace, such as "clinker bricks."

What are they? Almost more boulder than brick, these lumpy accidents occur when bricks are fired too close to the heat, resulting in misshapen, irregular blobs. The brothers liked the looks of them so much (the grounds of Charles's Pasadena house featured a retaining wall made from them) that they ordered suppliers to make them intentionally. Don't call them ugly; call them honest.

But the "New and Native" pairing also refers to the Greenes' blending of architectural styles. Here's a Japanese pergola, or archway. Over there an Italianate tiled roof. Elsewhere you'll find the simple Mission aesthetic (think clean, unadorned lines) of the Spanish colonial architecture found throughout the American West.

The most important "and" is not in the title at all. It does, however, permeate the show.

It's the one linking the ideas of form and function. That's a unity best epitomized by William Morris, the influential 19th-century English architect, designer, artist and writer, whose shadow looms large, like the broad eaves of one of the brothers' California homes, over the workmanlike yet lovely art on view here:

"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene Through June 7 at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW (Metro: Farragut West) Contact: 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). http://www.americanart.si.edu. Hours: Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission: Free.


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