Crowned the “Dean of American Craftsmen" by his peers, Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) melded utilitarian concepts with sculpture to create furniture that is often considered works of art. Esherick remains renowned for his pioneering work in non-traditional design. “He led, not followed, the Scandinavians,” the American Institute of Architects said subsequent to awarding Esherick a gold medal in craftsmanship. Freeman’s is pleased to offer representative examples of this esteemed Pennsylvania artist's furniture and sculptural work in its upcoming Oct. 8 Design Sale.
Born and raised on Locust Street in Philadelphia, Esherick first studied drawing and printmaking at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now University of the Arts) where he forged relationships with teachers that would have a lasting impact on his work. He then transferred to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) where he studied painting for the rest of his college career.
After a few illustration jobs, Wharton and his wife Letty decided to take a mentor’s advice and “live off the land and paint.” It was then that the new couple moved to an old farmhouse in the semi-rural Philadelphia suburb of Paoli.
They spent the next 40 years building a home and studio, designing almost every inch of their respective interiors. In this studio, Esherick carved elaborate wooden frames for his paintings -- turning his interest from painting, to woodcuts and ultimately to sculpture.
Esherick’s early woodwork is often embellished with decorative surface carving characteristic of the Arts-and-Crafts style. In the 1930s, Esherick, influenced by Cubism, abandoned this ornamentation in favor of "pure form" organic shapes -- a singular design aesthetic that he carried over into both his sculpture and furniture. Included in Freeman's Oct. 8 sale is a freestanding sculptural figure of Nocturne (Lot 14) from 1927 made of carved Chestnut, treated by Wharton with creosote for use outdoors. An example from Esherick’s Expressionist phase, this signed sculpture was exhibited at the Wharton Esherick Retrospective held at PAFA from October 30 to December 8, 1968. Wharton probably created fewer than 100 sculptures in his career, fewer than 20 at this scale -- most of which are now in museums or private collections.
The line between Esherick's functional and sculptural pieces is often deliberately soft: much of his furniture can be described as sculptural, and his sculptural works are often also functional and meant to be used as furniture. He even applied a sculptor’s approach to functional woodworking—assembling all the parts into the whole first, and then shaping the finished form. The furniture offered in Freeman's Design sale dates from the 1950s & 1960s, which is often considered Esherick's most influential period and marks the beginning of the Studio Craft movement.
Wharton was notably a person who sought and found true joy in life, and his work was an expression of that joy. Many of his projects were commissions for private homes, such as the famous Curtis Bok House, the fireplace of which is currently housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Esherick found the work of solving design and functional problems in such commissions immensely satisfying. As he famously once said, “If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing.”