Wharton Esherick (1887–1970) was an American sculptor and furniture designer who predominantly worked in wood and applied sculpting concepts to everyday products. As a result, his sculptural furniture and furnishings are his most well-known works. For his leadership in designing non-traditional designs and supporting and inspiring artists/craftspeople by example, Esherick was dubbed the “dean of American artisans” by his peers during his lifetime. Esherick’s impact can still be apparent in contemporary artisans’ work, especially in the Studio Craft Movement.
Esherick was born in Philadelphia and studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (now the University of the Arts (Philadelphia)). To pursue his painting profession, he moved to a farmhouse outside Paoli, Pennsylvania, in 1913. In 1920, he began carving ornamental frames for his paintings, which led to woodcut prints and then sculpture.
Arts & Craft Movement
Esherick’s early furniture was embellished with surface carving and was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. In the late 1920s, he stopped carving his furniture and instead focused on the items’ pure form as sculpture. In the 1930s, he was motivated by Rudolf Steiner’s organicism and German Expressionism and Cubism to create sculpture and furniture. The latter two movements’ angular and prismatic forms gave way to the free-form curvilinear shapes for which he is best known. His work was also featured in the art competition at the 1932 Summer Olympics when he competed in the painting event.
He proceeded from furniture and furnishings to interiors, the most notable of which was the Curtis Bok House (1935–37). Esherick’s art was saved even though the home was demolished. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s fireplace and adjacent music room doors, as well as the entrance stairs at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, Florida, may be seen.
In the New York World’s Fair, “America at Home” Pavilion in 1940, architect George Howe combined Esherick’s Spiral Stair (1930) and Esherick furniture to construct the “Pennsylvania Hill House” exhibit. Esherick’s work was also featured in a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 1958 and the Renwick Gallery’s “Woodenworks” show in 1972. During his lifetime, he showed hundreds of times. His work may now be found in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Whitney Museum in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and many other museums. The majority of his work is still in private hands.
His most significant work of art was his home and studio outside of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The structures changed over Esherick’s forty years of living and working there. Until his death in 1970, he continued to work in the studio. The Wharton Esherick Museum was established in 1972 after the studio was transformed. The Wharton Esherick Studio, as it is called, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
Esherick was the uncle of American architect Joseph Esherick and the father of Ruth Bascom (wife of architect Mansfield Bascom, curator emeritus of the Wharton Esherick Museum).
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL