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 small-scale 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.
Buildings with planar massing and horizontal elements recall Japanese architecture. These tenets of Japanese design are easy to see in the work of Greene & Greene and Frank Lloyd Wright. —Brian D. Coleman
1. fukinsei (imbalance) Asymmetry and irregularity are favored, as symmetry and perfection do not occur in nature. Translation: Group objects in clusters of three or five.
2. kanso (simplicity) Elimination of unnecessary ornament is important to keep things truthful. Translation: Eliminate clutter.
3. kokou (austerity) Basic, weathered and aged, essential materials are best as they evoke maturity. Translation: Use natural stone, brick, and wood.
4. seijaku (calmness) Silence and tranquility are important for one’s mind and surroundings. Translation: Incorporate areas for thought and reflection: a chair by the fireplace, a bench in the garden.
5. yugen (suggestion) Imply there is more by not showing everything. Translation: Don’t display everything you own all at once.