Rudolph Schaeffer (1886-1988), a proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, aspired to unite technology, science, and lifestyle in order to live in harmony with nature. An individual with many talents and interests, he was best known for his work in the field of color study and as a teacher and the founder of the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design in San Francisco.
Born on a farm in Clare, Michigan in 1886, Rudolph Schaeffer displayed musical and artistic talent from a young age. Although he initially wanted to become a professional musician, he began focusing more on art when his musical abilities were compromised by an improperly set broken wrist. Schaeffer received his first formal art training as a high school student and then attended the Thomas Normal Training School in Detroit, where he studied music, art, and design. He continued studying independently, developing interests in calligraphy and metal craft.
In 1907, Schaeffer taught manual training courses in the Columbus, Ohio, public schools. The following summer he traveled to Paris and London. While in London he saw an exhibition of Josef Hoffman's modern interiors that had a great impact on his own design ideas. He then returned to Michigan and taught in schools close to home. In 1909, Schaeffer attended a design course in Minneapolis taught by A. E. Batchelder, director of Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena. Both Batchelder and his course were strong influences on Schaeffer, as was Ralph Johnot, a proponent of Arthur Wesley Dow's design principles. In 1910 Schaeffer joined the faculty of Throop Polytechnic Institute, where he remained for five years.
The U. S. Commission on Education selected Schaeffer to be part of a delegation of twenty-five American teachers sent to Munich for several months in 1914 to investigate the exemplary industrial design curriculum offered in their secondary schools. Schaeffer subsequently expected to begin teaching at the Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles at the start of the 1914 school year, but World War I erupted while he was in Germany and his return to the United States was delayed so long that another teacher had to be hired to fill his place.
In 1915 Schaeffer was a manual training instructor at the California College of Arts and Crafts (formerly the Hopkins School), and taught design and metal crafts at the University of California Berkeley. For a number of years afterwards, he did free lance design work, taught private classes, and ran a small summer school in his Piedmont studio. Schaeffer was a visiting professor at Stanford University in 1918 when he was drafted and sent to drafting and surveying courses by the Army. Between 1917 and 1924 Schaeffer was on the faculty of the California College of Arts and Crafts where he taught design, color, handicrafts, and interior design. During this period he developed a new approach to teaching color and design based on the prismatic color wheel.
During the early 1920s Schaeffer worked as a set designer and as Art Director of Greek Theatre at the University of California at Berkeley, Schaeffer began applying prismatic color theory to set and costume design. He also designed sets for productions in Detroit. In 1925, Schaeffer saw the Paris Exposition and researched interior and stage design while in France.
The Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design which, in its early days was called the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Rhythmo-Chromatic Design, opened on St. Anne Street in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1926. In 1951 the school then moved to Union Street on Telegraph Hill where it remained for nearly a decade. In 1960, the school purchased a former boys' school on Mariposa Street, Portero Hill. Rudolph Schaeffer lived in a small cottage built for him at the rear of the property where he designed and tended a remarkable "Peace Garden."
The Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design was best known for its courses in color and interior design. Schaeffer was the first person in the United States to teach prismatic color theory, is credited with being the first to use the term "interior design" rather than "interior decoration" and the first to incorporate the use of models into interior design coursework. In 1959 the school's courses were expanded from 2 to 3-year programs and a diploma was awarded. Former students include many successful interior designers, textile designers, furniture designers, industrial designers, commercial artists, color consultants, teachers, and master flower arrangers.
In addition to the interior design and color diploma courses, the school offered a summer session, classes for children, a brief lecture series for the general public, and a wide variety of classes including advertising art, architecture and design, art history, art in public schools, calligraphy, color design, color for television, color for weavers, color theory, design, drawing, environmental aesthetics, fashion design, fashion illustration, flower arrangement, industrial design, interior design, Notan, sculpture, space planning, textile design, and weaving. Always struggling financially and sometimes lacking adequate enrollment, the school nevertheless managed to stay open for nearly 60 years. In 1984, the Board of Directors voted to remove Schaeffer from the board and close the school. Two years earlier the board had forced Schaeffer to retire, appointed him Director Emeritus, and brought in a new director charged with making the institution financially solvent, reorganizing the curriculum, and working toward accreditation. Unable to separate himself from the school (though he had done so legally when it was incorporated in 1953), Schaeffer balked and refused to cooperate with plans for revitalizing the institution.
One of the aims of the Rudolph Schaeffer School of Design was to interpret Asian esthetic principles. To this end the East West Gallery was established at the school in 1950. A membership organization, it offered exhibitions, lectures, concerts, and other programs that encouraged cultural integration. Exhibitions alternated between East (Asian art and artifacts from Rudolph Schaeffer's collection or other sources) and West (student work or work of local artists illustrating the influence of the Asian esthetic on contemporary art and design). East West Gallery was a membership organization, the first space of its kind in San Francisco for Asian art and operated in each of the school's locations.
In addition to running the school Schaeffer was involved in many other activities. He wrote several articles about flower arrangement, color, and color theory that were published in popular magazines. In 1935, he published Flower Arrangement Folio I (said to be the first on the subject published in this country) and in 1942 edited and wrote the introduction to Sunset's Flower Arrangement Book by Nell True Welch. Over a period of many years, he worked on several monographs on color, design, and "rhythmo-chromatics." None were ever published.
A sought-after speaker on the subjects of color, interior design, flower arrangement, and myriad other art topics, Schaeffer frequently served as a juror for art exhibitions and flower shows. From the 1930s on, the San Francisco department store Emporium used his services as a color consultant, as did Dutch Boy paints, and numerous textile and clothing manufacturers. Builders also asked Schaeffer to select interior and exterior colors for suburban housing developments.
Schaeffer worked on planning and designing the decorative arts exhibition at the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. In 1943-44, he participated in the Red Cross's Arts and Skills program, using color therapy with shell-shocked soldiers in a psychiatric unit.
The Rudolph Schaeffer Collection of Asian Art began as a collection of ceramics, both historical and contemporary examples chosen for their form and color, which he used for flower arrangements and in set-ups for still life classes. It soon expanded to include color prints, paintings, screens, and other works of art and portions were exhibited frequently in the East West Gallery. Selections from this collection were exhibited in Kansas City in 1960 and at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1976.
The City of San Francisco declared June 26, 1986, Schaeffer's 100th birthday, "Rudolph Schaeffer Day" and it was observed with great fanfare. He died at home on March 5, 1988, a few months before his 102nd birthday.