Design & Make

A Brief Bio: Wharton Esherick

by Jennifer S. Li June 20, 2018
ReadA Brief Bio: Wharton Esherick

Wharton Esherick’s (1887-1970) famous 1931 Fischer Corner desk is no ordinary workstation. It has the undulations of a Futurist artwork, with wood panels ebbing and flowing wildly like Umberto Boccioni’s famous sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Yet, it also has the hard angles and varied perspectives of Pablo Picasso or Georges Braque cubism.

All references are strangely dynamic, especially for a desk that one is meant to sit still in. The desk is outfitted with triangular panels that give an illusion of depth and space and form a complicated yet natural crystalline shape as well as camouflaging false panels that reveal secret compartments. The desk was commissioned for Helene Koerting Fischer, a friend, patron and admirer of Esherick’s work, and was made to fit neatly into the corner of her dressing room.

Esherick’s designs, on the other hand, were too unique to place squarely into any one category, and, as such, he is notable for having paved the way to the intersection and eventual breakdown of boundaries in fine art and utilitarian furniture. Considered a revolutionary figure in furniture-making history, Esherick created pieces that were as eclectic as his experiences, combining elements of sculpture, dance, theater, architecture, Arts and Crafts and Modern Theory into his work.

Esherick was a multi-talent, having been trained in wood and metalworking, painting, printmaking and drawing. Swept up by the American Impressionism movement of the early 1910s gripping the New England coast, he initially concentrated on painting portraits and landscapes. He was determined to be a professional artist, but he was also practical, settling on a five-acre working farm in Pennsylvania with his wife Letty, a teacher, in 1911. Their food-producing dwelling was also a backup plan in case nothing should sell. The couple’s hobbies included practicing nudism and reading philosophy. They eventually had three children and Esherick continued to expand and renovate to fit the family’s needs as well as fulfill his ever-changing creative vision. Today a portion of the property is a non-profit museum.

Esherick’s foray into woodcarving began with simple, carved designs on frames for his paintings, which then led to the more serious and involved endeavor of creating woodblock prints. It turned out that the prints sold far better than his paintings, even leading to commissions for book illustrations and publications like Vanity Fair.

Amidst his newfound success with woodcut prints, Esherick started to tinker around with carving small wooden objects and toys, and beginning in 1926 his sole focus would be sculpture. His wife Letty, meanwhile, found her own niche, which would come to have important influence on Esherick’s designs. Her interest in eurythmic dance and progressive teaching methods led the family to spend almost every summer at Gail Gardner-Ruth Doing Dance Camp in the Adirondack Mountains. Esherick’s designs were thus infused with a fluidity, rhythm and spontaneity. The family’s involvement in dance coalesced with Esherick’s newfound interest in theater. Esherick designed and fabricated sets for the Hedgerow Theater, even making cameo appearances in a few productions.

A sense of the dramatic and melodic is therefore evident in Esherick’s work. Take for example one of his most famous pieces, a music stand from 1960/1962. Esherick infuses the piece with movement and drama. The graceful tripodal legs are sinuous yet strong, like that of a balletic dancer en pointe. The swell of the music stand ladder and tray expand out, like an operatic singer puffing out his chest or Shakespearean orator bellowing a stanza. The steady, simple lines of the music stand recall the musical staff.

Throughout his training and career Esherick dabbled in almost every category of art history, from Baroque to Expressionism. But, with a similar mind-frame as the modernists, he concluded that furniture, like buildings, should be free of extraneous decoration. He idiosyncratically and belittlingly called extra surface details “literature,” and felt that furniture should be functional and admired like a piece of sculpture. Esherick’s dining table of 1940  demonstrates the beautiful simplicity that marked his work of this period. The combination of curved and straight lines of the table and chairs are thoughtfully engineered for functionality, comfort and daily use, and yet somehow their final shape still seems as organic and natural as a twig or branch harvested directly from the woods.

In addition to the fame of his furniture pieces, Esherick is renowned for his hand-hewn home. His residence, including the original house purchased in 1913 with Letty spreading out to the separate studio built atop a hill totaling about twelve acres, was the culminating opus of his philosophy and a lifetime of work. The focal point of the studio is the spiral staircase. The irregularly sized and shaped steps are fashioned out of red oak, and meander from the first, first, second and third levels of the four-level cottage. In 1939, the staircase was removed from the studio and showcased in the 1939 World’s Fair. It was displaced again for the 1959 retrospective of Esherick’s work organized by the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Art and Design in New York City). The staircase is now installed back in its original location as the center and highlight of the studio.

Esherick is not a household name and you will not find his reproductions at a chic modern furniture store, but his is a hugely important legacy. He was dubbed by his peers in the art and design community the “Dean of American Craftsmen” and was posthumously awarded a gold medal in Craftsmanship by the American Institute of Architects in 1971. It is fitting that the furniture-maker’s most famous work is the spiral staircase—it becomes an apt analogy for the trajectory and aesthetic thesis of Esherick’s life and work as he slowly and steadily ascended in success and fame (though not fortune, as his output remained relatively small and he sold pieces mainly to a small circle of close friends and family), taking irregular, yet steady, steps to his final goal.

Leading image inside Wharton Esherick’s home in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy American Craft Council).

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