"Art Furniture" Maker Unrecognized: Wharton Esherick

New York Times
Wednesday, 9 July, 2003


Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) was present at the creation of the American craft and studio furniture movement; in fact he made it possible. His organic yet aesthetically sophisticated "art furniture" has inspired generations of younger American woodworkers.

So why have so few of us ever heard of him?

Esherick is not totally unknown; he had a one-man retrospective at the American Craft Museum in 1959 and was included in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Century of Design" show in 2001. His work is in the collections of the Met, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

The infinitely more famous craftsmen he influenced certainly give him plenty of credit.

Sam Maloof, the California master woodworker, called him the "dean of American craftsmen." Wendell Castle, the artist and craftsman based in Rochester, N.Y., said, "Wharton Esherick taught me that the making of furniture could be a form of sculpture."

Auction house specialists these days scour the world for the 3,000 pieces of furniture he made from the early 1920s to 1970. "He's the one designer in all of our auctions at Phillips that we haven't been lucky enough to get," said James Zemaitis, the head of the department of 20th and 21st century decorative arts at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg. "He's No. 1 on our wish list."

Nonetheless his is no household name. "Esherick has been something of a well-kept secret," said Robert Aibel, the owner and director of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, which carries Esherick's work.

 HE WAS A REBEL

Esherick was always a rebel. He was born into a well-to-do family, but when he decided to become an artist instead of a businessman, his relatives seem to have lost interest in him.

He went to a trade school, then studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. There he worked under painters like William Merritt Chase, but he found the program stifling. He quit a few weeks before graduation.

"He chose to immerse himself in the modern and nontraditional approach to art that was forbidden at the academy," Aibel writes in an exhibition catalog.

In 1913 Esherick and his young wife, Letticia Nofer, moved to an old stone farmhouse in Paoli, 25 miles west of Philadelphia, in what was then bucolic woodland. He supported himself as an illustrator and painted in an Impressionist style in his free time. "He lived hand to mouth," Aibel said.