A Pioneer, A Rebel and Still a Secret

New York Times
Friday, 23 May, 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?

That situation may change with an exhibition on Esherick at the sixth annual international exposition of SOFA (Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art), which runs from Thursday through June 1 at the Seventh Regiment Armory in Manhattan.

Esherick isn't totally unknown; he had a one-man retrospective at the American Craft Museum in 1959 and was included in the 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, said, ''Wharton Esherick taught me that the making of furniture could be a form of sculpture.''

Auction house specialists scour the world for the 3,000 pieces of furniture he made from the early 1920's 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.

Mr. Aibel was asked to put together the Esherick exhibition for SOFA 2003. ''The concept was to create an entire Wharton Esherick environment,'' he said, ''with built-in units from private homes, pieces of furniture, lighting, sculptures and woodcuts.'' He said he wanted to duplicate the ambience of the Esherick home and studio, now the Wharton Esherick Museum, in Paoli, Pa.

Most of the pieces are from Moderne Gallery and are for sale; prices range from $1,200 for a woodcut to $35,000 for a cabinet. Mr. Aibel borrowed the rest.

The furniture includes a walnut desk unit, bookcase and speaker cabinet originally commissioned by Nat and Rose Satinsky Rubinson, Esherick's great patrons; one of Esherick's signature music stands; a coffee table; a cabinet; and three of Esherick's hammer-handled chairs.

''The people at SOFA wanted a more historical perspective than they have had in the past in New York,'' Mr. Aibel said. ''I'm trying to create a museumlike environment, with burlap walls and a pieced-wood floor like the one in Esherick's kitchen.''

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,'' Mr. Aibel writes in his essay in the 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,'' Mr. Aibel said.

In 1919 he went to teach art at a utopian artists' colony in Fairhope, Ala. He met the writer Sherwood Anderson, who became a lifelong friend and gave him a set of chisels. Esherick began experimenting with woodcut printing and carving picture frames. When he returned to Pennsylvania in 1920, he won commissions to do woodcuts for books and magazines. Much to his chagrin he saw that his carved frames elicited more interest than his paintings, which were not selling.

''By 1925 Esherick had given up painting altogether and devoted himself to woodblock printing, wood sculpting and making sculptural furniture,'' Mr. Aibel writes in the catalog. '' 'If I can't paint like Esherick,' he said, 'I can at least sculpt like Esherick.' '' He was trying to be original, which seemed easier in wood than in oil paint.

Esherick built his home and studio by hand: not only the furniture, stairs, doors and floors, but also cutting boards, bowls, coat pegs, light fixtures and kitchen utensils.

He worked alone or with an assistant in a studio on the property, but he wasn't an isolated loner. He was friendly with authors, actors, architects and composers. ''It was always important for him to be associated with other artists,'' Mr. Aibel said. ''They were the people he sought out. They fed him what he needed.''

In 1939, the architect George Howe asked him to collaborate on a space in the ''America at Home'' pavilion at the World's Fair in New York. ''Many visitors, including artists and designers of the time, saw the exhibit, and it was widely published,'' Mr. Aibel writes. ''His World's Fair table and hammer-handle chairs, long considered a masterpiece of organic design, formed the centerpiece of the space.'' He said the show may well have inspired the organic work of Eames, Saarinen and others who were later part of the seminal ''Organic Design'' show at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940's.

Esherick worked up to the day he died at 83. He never sought publicity. Now it is finding him.