Art met craft at the Mathews studio

From the 1890s to the early 1920s, the artists Arthur and Lucia Mathews were at the center of an artistic movement that sought to combine European tradition in art and design with the ideals of a new way of life that celebrated the natural splendors of Northern California.

After the earthquake and fire of 1906, the Mathewses made the neighborhood their artistic home.

Arthur’s studio at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art on Nob Hill had gone up in smoke, along with his job as director of the school he had run since 1890. Art collector John Zeile Jr. came to the rescue. He had lost his family home at 1717 California Street, between Van Ness and Franklin, when it was dynamited as part of the firebreak. (The site is now a part of the Whole Foods complex.)

Zeile teamed up with Arthur and Lucia Mathews and in its place built a handsome building designed by Arthur in the Arts and Crafts style. It included a painting studio for Arthur and a showroom and workshop called simply the Furniture Shop. It also housed a magazine, Philopolis, devoted to Arthur’s high-minded plans for rebuilding San Francisco, together with Philopolis Press, which published limited edition books. Upstairs was a studio for William Keith, then widely considered California’s greatest artist.

At a time when the Mathewses needed a new livelihood, many wealthy San Franciscans suddenly found themselves in want of new or renovated homes. The Furniture Shop brought Arthur and Lucia into an artistic collaboration, aided by John Zeile’s capital and contacts, that supplied the community with unusually well-made furniture and decorative objects.

In 1916, the city having been substantially rebuilt, Philopolis ceased publication. Around 1920 — the records are vague — the Furniture Shop closed. Although the Mathewses continued to be active as artists and as designers for the home, the high point of their influence had passed. Newer decorative styles, informed by ever more modern movements and simplified form, superseded their gentler classical vision.

— Jerome Tarshis


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