Wharton Esherick has been called the link between the Arts and Crafts Movement and the resurgent interest in furniture making following World War II, the dean of American craftsmen and the foundation of the current Studio Furniture Movement. On awarding him its gold medal for Craftsmanship, the American Institute of Architects noted, “He led, not followed, the Scandinavians.” His legacy lies not in establishing a style, his designs were too unique, but in pioneering the way for successive generations of artists working in wood to exhibit and market their original, non-traditional designs.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, he learned wood and metal working at Manual Training High School, drawing and printmaking at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. American Impressionism was at its height and, with his bride Letty, he joined the flight of painters from the city to the landscape. They were painting, settling in an old farmhouse near semi-rural Paoli – with enough level land to grow their own food in the event the paintings didn’t sell.
His interest in wood began in 1920 with the carving of simple representational designs on frames for his paintings. This led to carving woodcuts - he carved some 400 blocks, illustrating nine books - and carving on furniture. In the early 1920's he began sculpting in wood, then considered solely a craft medium. By 1926 his sculpture was being exhibited at the Whitney in New York, and he began construction of an organic, Arts and Crafts style studio.
By 1928 he realized furniture didn’t need surface decoration - “literature,” he called it - but, like sculpture, should stand on shape alone. He produced a dining table and chairs using asymetric, prismatic forms with fanning walnut boards separated by narrow ebony strips. He began receiving commissions for Expressionist furniture and interiors, and soon achieved his goal of creating furniture that would pass as sculpture, and sculpture that functioned as furniture, bridging the gap between art and craft. His early furniture was shaped after the parts were assembled, providing a sculptural flow from element to element.
His largest commission, begun in 1935, when he was 52, as “some interesting bookshelves for two tons of books,” grew to include four fireplaces, two desks, four sofas, upholstered chairs, wall and ceiling paneling, two portals and a spiral stair that are now in museums. In time his work retained the asymmetric elements of expressionism but the sharp edges had softened, the planar surfaces had warped and the forms and textures became sensually organic. Over the years, he developed a following of dedicated customers who found his work addictive, returning year after year for yet another piece.
He worked at a time when there were no organizations of furniture makers, magazines to promote their work or great public interest in art furniture, as exist today. Few galleries would show it. A room of his work, “A Pennsylvania Hillhouse” at the 1940 New York World’s Fair, provided national exposure, but the world soon became more concerned with war than with furniture. In 1958, recognizing his leading role in furniture design, the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York introduced his work to a broader audience through a retrospective exhibition.
His wooden works span the fifty year period from 1920 until his death in 1970; from the organic forms of the Arts and Crafts period, through the sharp edged crystalline shapes of Expressionism to the curvilinear free-forms for which he is best known. He welcomed commissions for one of a kind furniture and interiors, not for the income but for the joy of creating new, exciting forms for everyday uses. His mind worked (he would have said played) constantly at solving the design and functional problems.
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