Esherick has been called the link between the Arts and Crafts Movement and the resurgent interest in furniture making following World War II. He was labeled "The Dean of American Craftsmen" and the founder 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. All these things and more are examined in more detail on the 1 hour guided tour.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Esherick 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, which is now the Wharton Esherick Museum.
Above the studio, he built a bedroom with his bed at window height so he could watch the deer, enjoy the sunrise, and, in the morning light, see all the farms spread out in the valley below. He used the space beneath for drawers for his clothing. He shaped the ceiling, using an art deco technique, to create a more sculptural space. Later, in his Expressionist period, he added the wooden living quarters, including a prismatic kitchen with a bath beneath, a dining room, and a bedroom above for his son, Peter. In the 1960s he added the lyrical, curvilinear tower‚ he called it his silo‚ to provide a larger kitchen, and built a free-form deck where he could enjoy the evening breezes.
Esherick had been attracted to this site in 1913 by an unusually large wild cherry tree shading the old stone farmhouse that would be home for his family. When the tree died, he sawed its branches to make the fanning wall paneling in the studio's dining room. The floor is a curvilinear mosaic of walnut and applewood scraps. The ceiling is of oak boards too checked for any other use.
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.
The photos below were taken on September 11, 2014. No photography is permitted inside. Virtual tours can be seen HERE.