Cradle of liberty, cradle of craft

Wharton Esherick
The career of Wharton Esherick in many ways was the antithesis of Yellin's. He preferred to work in relative isolation, with only one or two assistants. Also unlike Yellin, Esh­erick preferred a modernist aesthetic, rejecting historical precedents in favor of innovative forms. Born to a prominent Philadelphia family, Esherick studied drawing at the Central Manual Training School, commercial art at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art, and painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He embarked on a career as an artist, but few of his paintings found buyers. His first jobs were in commercial illustration, converting photographs into drawings that could be reproduced by lithography. In the early 1920s he took up carving woodblock prints as well as frames for his paintings, and over the course of that decade he evolved from painter to sculptor and furniture maker.

Dining set by Esherick, 1928. Walnut with ebony trim; height (of table) 28 ½, length 62, width 41 ½ inches. The five-sided table was made for the dining room of the Esherick family farmhouse. Courtesy of the Wharton EsherickMuseum, photograph by Elizabeth Field.

Esherick's earliest furniture shows the influence of arts and crafts models, such as furniture made to the neo-medieval designs of William Price (1861-1916) at the nearby RoseValley community. In the late 1920s Esherick came under the influence of expressionism, futurism, and cubism, in part with his designs for stage sets at the Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley. By 1928 Esherick was making innovative furniture with angular, geometric forms inspired by European modernism. He worked primarily for friends and the acquaintances he made in avant-garde literary and artistic circles and he transformed his own house and studio with experimental works. Perhaps his most significant commission was for renovations to the Gulph Mills, Pennsylvania, residence of Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok from 1935 to 1938, which included a spiral staircase, a "book room" with cubist-influenced elements, and a dramatic music room with a more curvilinear design. In 1939 architect George Howe (1886-1955) invited Esherick to collaborate on his "Pennsylvania Hill House" installation at the New York World's Fair. Esherick's furniture and woodwork for both projects marked a transition from angular forms to more sculptural, organic shapes that would characterize his work of the 1940s into the 1960s.

Esherick's Spiral stair of 1930 was removed from the house twice for exhibition: in 1939 at the New York World's Fair, and again in 1958 for a retrospective at the Museum of ContemporaryCrafts. Wharton Esherick Museum; photograph by James Mario.  

Throughout his career, Esherick sought to emphasize the character of the material in his furniture. His approach was that of a sculptor: "I begin to shape [wood] as I go along. The piece just grows beneath my hands. I treat furniture as though it were a piece of sculpture. I dig up what I do out of my soul."4 Although the hand joinery was usually executed by his assistant of thirty years, John Schmidt, the finished objects followed Esherick's designs and his delight in whimsical references or details. During the post-World War II era, the younger generation of woodworkers hailed Esherick as a seminal influence, and in 1958 to 1959 he was given a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York. He was seen then, and now, as the progenitor of studio craftsmen. Most historians credit him with "almost singlehandedly establish[ing] the twentieth-century style of American woodworking."5 DLB

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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