Old House Journal - - Design - By David Mathias

In Ja­panese, a term ex­presses the ul­ti­mate in beau­ti­ful de­sign: shibusa ( shibusa is the noun form while shibui is the ad­jec­ti­val form). Not sur­pris­ingly, it is a term that doesn’t trans­late eas­ily, as at­tested to by the broad range of English def­i­ni­tions. De­scribed var­i­ously as calm un­der­state­ment, or quiet, sober re­fine­ment, se­vere exquisite­ness, or in­ter­est­ing beauty, it is an im­por­tant con­cept in Ja­panese aes­thet­ics.

There is no ev­i­dence that Charles and Henry Greene were fa­mil­iar with the con­cept of shibusa. It does not, for ex­am­ple, ap­pear in Ed­ward Morse’s Ja­panese Homes and Their Sur­round­ings, a book Charles Greene owned. It is pos­si­ble that they had en­coun­tered it; how­ever, what seems more likely is that they un­der­stood the idea, were sym­pa­thetic to the view, with­out hav­ing been ex­posed to it. One thing of which we can be cer­tain is that much of the work of Greene & Greene is shibui. Whether they were ac­tu­ally in­flu­enced by knowl­edge of shibusa is a moot point, for their work demon­strates sen­si­tiv­ity to the con­cept and, by ex­ten­sion, to Ja­panese aes­thet­ics.

When view­ing the server from the Free­man Ford house or the din­ing ta­ble from the Gam­ble house, phrases such as “sim­ple with­out be­ing crude, aus­tere with­out be­ing se­vere” cer­tainly come to mind. The en­tire Blacker house is a study in “re­fine­ment that gives spir­i­tual joy.”

In­te­grated de­sign is also a fa­mil­iar theme in the Arts & Crafts move­ment. Arts & Crafts de­sign­ers typ­i­cally strove for a level of sim­plic­ity and used themes from na­ture, both shibui at­tributes. Fur­ther, el­e­ments drawn from na­ture were of­ten used in highly styl­ized form as in the Ja­panese/Chi­nese cloud scrolls and mist sym­bol and in many Stick­ley in­lays as well as those in much of the fur­ni­ture in the Greenes’ Blacker house.

In both philoso­phies, a strong in­ter­est in, or even devo­tion to, the se­lec­tion and use of ma­te­ri­als was a key el­e­ment. Both share a rev­er­ence for la­bor and the process of cre­ation. While more for­mal in Ja­pan, this idea was one of the cor­ner­stones for the founders of Arts & Crafts in Eng­land. There, this was seen as a re­turn to the me­dieval guild sys­tem, while in Ja­pan there was no need for a re­turn as the sys­tem had changed very lit­tle over time.

Charles Greene’s propen­sity for very di­rect in­volve­ment in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of his de­signs is well known. In some cases Charles in­sisted that work­ers dis­man­tle por­tions of projects and redo them. Charles is said to have cho­sen stones for place­ment, pre­sum­ably at the stone’s re­quest. That the Greenes, Charles in par­tic­u­lar, were in­flu­enced by Ja­pan is in­dis­putable. One needn’t have for­mal train­ing in de­sign to de­tect Asian el­e­ments in the broth­ers’ work.

The Chi­nese in­flu­ence is some­times over­looked. It can be dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish the two: Many as­pects of Ja­panese cul­ture can be traced to China, though only by trav­el­ing through many cen­turies of his­tory. Af­ter ap­pear­ing in Ja­pan, the forms fol­lowed in­de­pen­dent evo­lu­tion­ary paths. The most com­mon dis­tinc­tion given, though a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion, is that the Greenes were in­flu­enced by Ja­panese ar­chi­tec­ture and Chi­nese fur­ni­ture.

Chi­nese fur­ni­ture is viewed as smallscale ar­chi­tec­ture. “Each piece of fur­ni­ture is a form of ar­chi­tec­ture in minia­ture with walls, join­ery, and an im­plicit duty to serve hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Each ex­am­ple is made from wood, has a rhythm, and is an act of beauty,” writes art his­to­rian Sarah Han­dler. In Chi­nese, the words for build­ing fram­ing ( da muzuo, or large car­pen­try) and fur­ni­ture mak­ing ( xiao muzuo, or small car­pen­try) are quite sim­i­lar, fur­ther il­lus­trat­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween struc­tures and fur­ni­ture.

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