The life and Works of Wharton Esherick
Wednesday 27 April 2011
Vanessa Austin Locke presents the life and play of a sculptor who has inspired generations of designer makers
Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) was an American designer maker who lived and worked in Pennsylvania. He's little talked of, especially in the UK, but his influence has been massive in the furniture industry. Esherick was one of the first makers to desire more from furniture than mere functionality; he wanted it to be art. Inspired by German Expressionism and Anthroposophy (a philosophy developed by Rudolph Steiner), his work was closely linked to architecture, form and, most importantly, fun.
HomeThe home of Wharton Esherick is his greatest legacy. Set in the Pennsylvanian countryside, it's a fairytale cabin, whose structure meanders and plays with colour, shape and fantasy. It's now a museum to its creator's life and work but it doesn't feel like a museum. It feels like a living household come studio whose inhabitant is just out walking in the surrounding countryside for the afternoon and might return at any moment, kick off his muddy boots and begin tinkering with some project or other, newly inspired by fresh air
What's most striking in terms of furniture, is how the furnishings and the architecture of the house blend together and support each other. One gets the feeling that while the individual pieces stand alone, they are truly complete when accompanied by the house they were born in. Esherick began by carving on the surface of his furniture but not long into his career he abandoned this, in favour of true form, the asymmetrical angles of expressionism, followed by the curvilinear lines of free-form which melt into the structure of the house like bodies entwined.
WorkEsherick learned his craft at the Pennsylvanian Museum School of Industrial Art and the Pennsylvanian Academy of Fine Art. He began carving in 1920 and carved over 400 blocks, illustrating nine books. It only took six years before his work was being displayed in The Whitney in New York. He began receiving commissions for Expressionist furniture and interior design and started to develop a reputation as an artist rather than a craftsman, which was his goal. Many argue that he is the original link between the Arts and Crafts movement and the furniture industry we know today. Architecture is another massive theme in his work, which is essentially a melting pot of sculpture, craft and architecture knitted together into an entirely unique expression with an stamp all its own.
One might look at Esherick's work today and say, 'I've seen that before,' and that might be true, but that's only because Esherick's influence has been quietly handed down through the generations of makers. He was awarded the gold medal for craftsmanship by the American Institute of Architects, who noted, "He led, not followed, the Scandinavians. A quote from the Wharton Esherick Museum's website puts it eloquently, "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."
Despite there being no real furniture industry at the time and no media vehicles with which to promote it as we are lucky enough to have today, he successfully made furniture and art for 50 years for a dedicated following. This might be down to luck or hard graft but we suspect it's down to the fact that, "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 use." And that's exactly how his furniture feels; joyful. This is surely where his success lies, in that tangible feeling of elation the work inspires.
PlayWe've talked of Esherick's work, but the truth is, it wasn't work at all. It was play. An admirer of Steiner, (best known for his Philosophy of Freedom), Esherick viewed all he did as play, famously noted as saying, "If it's not fun, it's not worth doing."
His work and home exudes this and there's a feeling of great lightness of heart, from the mottled daubing of colour on the exterior of the house, to the carved monkey hanging from a beam, to the countless nooks and crannies, each revealing some tucked away delight. Cluttered and haphazard in the most cherished and elegant of ways, the sculpture (for sculpture it most certainly is) invites you to clamber on it, play with it, touch it and have a relationship with it.
This furniture would look so sad roped off, behind glass with a sign saying "Do Not Sit" and a portly warden's firm eye on the beholder. This furniture wants us to be children and to luxuriate in its existence, in the feel of the wood against our cheek, in the tucked away draws where secrets are kept. Esherick's work/play encapsulates warmth and wonder, making everyday banalities into tiny delights, reminding us always to stay young, stay inspired and stay creative.
LegacyIt's a long way to go, Pennsylvania, but, if you're ever in the area we thoroughly recommend a trip to The Wharton Esherick Museum. He lived his life creatively from beginning to end and his legacy can be seen, not only in the work he left behind, but in the second, third and emerging fourth generations of makers who have, knowingly or not, been inspired by him.
Images courtesy of James Mario and Marjorie Content