“I started as a painter and had exhibitions in Alabama, Washington D.C., and Chicago. Then I found I wasn’t painting like Wharton Esherick ought to paint, so I started with sculpture, then with furniture,” Wharton Esherick describes finding his best medium of expression—building interiors and furniture of wood. The change from two-dimensional painting and printmaking to sculpture in three dimensions for him led naturally to building furniture; and people bought his furniture.
Esherick was born in Philadelphia in 1887 and studied at that city’s School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Esherick’s work in wood, beginning in the mid-1920s, reflected the time he lived through. His style evolved through carved surfaces and complex line with angular planes until he developed the sensitive shaping of curved form imbued with energetic life that became his own way with wood. For as he said, “Some of my sculpture went into the making of furniture.”
He took particular joy in the interaction of idea and material, the play of blending a furniture form he had in mind with the natural variations he found in the wood. A crack might be sanded to emphasize its shape, a knot might be left higher than the surrounding surface to become a point of tactile interest, the very conception of his design could be directed by the flow of grain in a piece of wood.
At first he worked by himself, but as demand for his special kind of design grew, so did his workshop, which in time became fully mechanized, for Esherick welcomed the help of useful tools. Perhaps because he was first of all an artist, and because he considered the hand as another tool, he believed that handcraft was secondary to design, though craftsman he was. He put into his work “a little of the hand, but the main thing is the heart and the head.” In his own mind, Wharton Esherick was simply a man who made furniture “under personal supervision and with personal concern.” He worked with a varying number of helpers and left to them much of the joinery and finishing, keeping for himself only the special wood problems requiring his own hand and judgment. In 1969, a year before his death, he was “still shaping the seats of the stools. The boys just don’t get the hang of it.”
During his enormously productive life as a woodworker, Esherick completed many interiors. Some, like his rooms for the Curtis Bok house in Gulph Mills near Philadelphia, are counted among the most important interiors of the 1930s; but his masterwork is the house he built for himself near Paoli, Pensylvania. There on a wooded hillside he laid the stone foundations for his home and studio in 1926 and spent the rest of his life working on it, seldom even wanting to go away for a visit. He liked best to use the wood native to his own land, believing that “if I can’t make something beautiful out of what I find in my back yard, I had better not make anything.”
Long hours went into improving and finishing his house until in time the house seemed to become Esherick. Of it he said, “I am only Esherick the man, but all of this is really Esherick.” The house exemplifies his sculptural concepts; it is filled with patient and thoughtful and often humorous detailing of walls, doors, ceiling, floors, and bult-in seating and beds. He furnished it with his own sculpture and furniture prototypes, for he kept “number one” of any design himself.
Esherick did not accept apprentices, declaring, “I make, I don’t teach,” but his work is a recognized influence on the course of wood craftsmanship in America. Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle each acknowledge Esherick as the man whose work proved to them woodworing could be important and expressive.
Because he was self-taught as a sculptor and furniture craftsman, he directed any person interested in following his path just to begin, and to learn by making mistakes—“Then you have to work twice as hard to correct the mistakes and the thing begins to take shape.” He summed up: “Listen, if you go into this thing that I’m doing, you’ll have a hell of a struggle—but you’ll have fun.”
Woodenworks: Furniture Objects by Five Contemporary Craftsmen. (St. Paul, Minn.: Minnesota Museum of Art with the National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, 1972)