Furniture as Sculpture

Artists who gravitate from one medium to another, take heart. American Modernist and founder of the American Studio Furniture Movement Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) worked his way through painting, ceramics, woodblock printing, illustration, frame making, and designing posters and theater sets before finding his voice as a sculptor of furniture.

The Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli, Pa., has long been a destination for arts and design enthusiasts in the Delaware Valley, and with the publication of Mansfield Bascom’s (Esherick’s son-in-law) new biography, “Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind” (Abrams), there is a resurgence of interest in the furniture maker.

Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern, on view at the galleries at the University of Pennsylvania’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library and Fisher Fine Arts Library through Feb. 13, 2011, traces his evolution as an artist, and his path in design from Arts and Crafts to German Expressionism, Cubism and the spiritual philosophy of Waldorf School founder Rudolf Steiner.

Before Mr. Bascom’s book, “no one had gone back to look at Esherick’s intellectual and artistic development,” says Lynne Farrington, curator of printed books at Penn’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library who curated Birth of the American Modern.

Familiar with Esherick because several of his pieces — manuscripts, a table, a bust and a cane – were in the library’s collection, Ms. Farrington first visited the Esherick Museum in 2007. While there, she saw a small collection of prints, and asked Paul Eisenhauer, curator of the Esherick Museum, if she could do a small print show at Penn. But as Ms. Farrington explored Esherick’s correspondence and saw his relationships with, among others, American novelists Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, she saw it could be a much larger show.

“I wanted to look at the themes, people, places and cross interactions with greater breadth through photographs, manuscripts, drawings, sculpture and printed matter,” she says.

Esherick studied painting at the University of the Arts and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but dropped out six weeks before graduation because he felt he was being taught to imitate the work of others, according to Ms. Farrington.

He exhibited his paintings in Philadelphia, created woodblock illustrations for books for Centaur Book & Records Store owner Harold Mason and worked for newspapers, transferring photos into line drawings, as was then the practice. The wooden centaur Esherick carved for the bookstore that hung over its sign for many years is on display in the Kamin Gallery, its painted crazed from years of exposure to the elements.

Supporting himself as an illustrator, Esherick and his wife could not afford to buy a home in Bucks County, where many of the Academy-trained artists settled, so instead he  found a farmhouse in nearby Chester County. When the realtor took them around, the story goes, Esherick saw a tree he liked and asked for property with a tree like that. This is the property I was going to take you to, the realtor reportedly said. Esherick said he’d take it without looking inside; he had the tree he liked, and he could always change the house to suit.

The family grew vegetables, and Esherick painted in the house, then in the barn, before building the studio that would later serve as his shop. A photo shows him in the studio with an 1860s printing press he used, and a 1922 painting shows his new woodshop in the barn.

“He tried to make it as a painter,” says Ms. Farrington. “He was a decent American Impressionist, but never distinguished himself as a painter.”

“His wife, Letty, was interested in educating children in a non-traditional manner,” continues Ms. Farrington. Against rote learning, she wanted to home school her children. She found Marietta Johnson in Fairhope, Ala., and the whole family went to study there in 1919-20. There was a focus on play, and educating the body as well as the mind through such disciplines as dance.

Esherick taught painting at an all-black school (before desegregation), and began his friendship with Sherwood Anderson. Esherick was influenced by the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent, and made woodcuts for the bookplate for the Fairhope library.

He carved wood frames for paintings he wanted to show. Soon, people became more interested in his frames than in his paintings, so he started working in wood. Back in Philadelphia, he saw that making frames was another way to earn money. By the late 1930s, he stopped making woodblocks and went into large sculpture and furniture design.

At this time, he became interested in socialist and progressive politics, and with Dreiser began reading and discussing the works of Rudolf Steiner: Ways to a New Style in Architecture, The Triorganic Social Organism.

At the Hedgerow Theatre in Media, Pa., Esherick befriended visionary director and actor Jasper Deeter, at the forefront of modern theater in Philadelphia. Rose Valley was a former Arts and Crafts community, and its people were interested in progressive education and theater. As Esherick became a part of the theater’s artistic community, he found new inspiration, creating a stairway near the rear of the theater for actors and actresses to get up and down. A model for the stairway is exhibited here, and one can see how his spiral stairways evolved.

In order to pay for acting classes for his daughters, Esherick made tables, as well as posters and stage sets, and used the green room as a gallery. He even acted as the milkman in a production.

A woodcut of Dreiser’s studio in New York has striking lines with its multiple perspective: Elongated windows show the grid-like architecture of the city, reflected on a shiny surface that may be a piano, and continuing in a keyboard, book shelves and music paper. Exhibited alongside is a preliminary sketch without a figure, but the final print includes Dreiser sitting in a chair in the center.

Esherick exhibited sculpture at the first Whitney Biennial, and sculpture and a pencil drawing at the second.

He learned to sail as a boy in Barnegat Bay, where he continued to vacation throughout his life. There are woodcuts of the Barnegat Bay area that certainly stand on a par with Rockwell Kent’s.

Across the quad, at the Kroiz Gallery, is Esherick’s  furniture including a turntable cabinet promised to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In honor of this exhibition, the PMA has installed several examples of his furniture, including a permanent installation of a fireplace and doorway from the Curtis and Nellie Lee Bok House, considered by many to be Esherick’s finest commission.

An intricately carved trunk with rabbit and deer was done early in his career, when he would carve into old furniture. “It looks like if you inked it, you could print it,” says Ms. Farrington.

A gilded frame with carved pine needles complements the painting inside of moonlit Alabama pines. There is a small chair he made as payment for his children’s tuition, and a chair made from a wagon wheel cut in half and used to form the arms and sides of the chair, while the cart handles form the back. Woven leather provides comfortable seating.

In the beginning, Esherick used exotic woods, such as padouk, a dark reddish wood, but later found local sources for cherry and maple.

A writing table made for Dreiser is at least 14 feet long. “He sat in the middle to work,” says Ms. Farrington.

For the 1940 World’s Fair, architect George Howe created a room of the future that included Esherick’s table and chairs, and the staircase from his own home, now a National Historic Landmark for Architecture. The chairs were made from hammer handles.

“His clients all became friends. He didn’t do it just for the money, he wanted the relationship,” says Ms. Farrington. “Unlike Nakashima, he wasn’t a productionist – he wanted to play with design, and each commission had its own elements.”

Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern is on view in the Kamin and Kroiz Galleries of the University of Pennsylvania, 3420 Walnut St., Philadelphia, through Feb. 13, 2011. Gallery hours: Mon.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (hours vary during Penn holidays and intersession); admission is free. 215-746-5828;

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2 Responses to Furniture as Sculpture

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