Wharton Esherick is an American designer known as the father of the American Craft Studio movement: they refuse industrial production, then in vogue, and prefer the hand-work to sublimate the wood. He had an intuitive approach and he challenged some traditional forms of furniture. He launched a new momentum, then followed by a small group of designers, such as Sam Maloof (1916-2009), Phillip Lloyd Powell (1919-2008) and George Nakashima (1905-1990).
Wharton Esherick studied illustration, not furniture. He first took courses in drawing and printmaking at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Arts (now University of the Arts) before studying painting for two years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts but he quitted. He finally started a career as an illustrator and painter, without any conviction: “I was a good draftsman who didn’t know how to think.”
While he began to carve his wood frames, his practice changed. He turned into sculpture and some of his works entered in major American collections such as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In the meantime, he created furniture and set up his studio on his property, an old farmhouse dating from 1839 in Paoli (Pennsylvania), guarded by a large cherry tree. His family and friends wanted he turned completely to design: at the end of the 1920s, his decision was taken.
As a follower of the English Arts & Crafts movement and an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), he believed in artisanal work and nature influence. He conceived his studio with stones and wood, found nearby: his own wooden sixtine chapel where he created unique pieces.
“I begin to shape as I go along. The piece just grows beneath my hands.”
He is more often described as a sculptor than a cabinetmaker. But it’s clearly his strength. When the United States turned into a massive industrialization era, he decided to be an outsider: he was the first to feel the wood, selecting each piece for its shapes, flaws and grains. His studio and home are his own real-life fantasies: from the sofa to his iconic spiral staircase, wood is everywhere and shaped by Wharton Esherick.
He is inspired by forms he observed in nature but his furniture remains functional and comfortable, two essential components for him. He is close to the material and he was surrounded only with a small team of assistants – we can mention as examples John Schmidt, Bill McIntyre, Horace Hartshaw. The manufacturing process is mastered and respectful.
Environment is essential on several levels for Wharton Esherick: first of all, he chose his wood from some local species of Pennsylvania; for each order, he visited the destination to understand his clients expectations – very often drawing on-site – marking his privileged and sensitive relationship with people and their lifestyle. Some of his clients are famous, like Fischer and Seiver families, and they speaks for themselves.
Wharton Esherick is a craftsman: his early works are characterized by simple forms, then he passed by a cubist phase and finally he ended in a very personal abstract expressionism; each work is unique. His craftsmanship is perfect and his creations are signed in the manner of Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779). His art is recognized worldwide and is included in important museum collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in New York.