A few weeks ago was invited by my friend Daniella Ohad to attended a fascinating event at the New York School of Interior Design. It was a screening, followed by a panel discussion, of a recently completed documentary about one of the most important sculptors-woodworkers of the 20th century. The documentary: I am known as an artist, Wharton Esherick was created by Carolyn Coal, and tells the story of the life and work of America’s first Studio Furniture maker.
We use the term Studio Furniture to describe one-of-a-kind furniture that is unique both in shape and in meaning. Generally speaking, Studio furniture projects are laden with expressive tendencies, sculptural motifs, symbolism or other artistic statements, and are original and unique. A studio furniture maker will invent new shapes rather than repeat historic patterns and will explore new forms, proportions and textures upon mimicking tried and trued methods of the past. Because of the artistic nature of many Studio works, the cost of these one-of-a-kind projects is not cheap. Therefore, like renaissance age artists and artisans, Studio furniture makers also rely on patrons and benefactors who appreciate their artistic vision and are willing to pay for the time and effort that is needed for the creation of a new project.
Wharton Esherick (1887 –1970) was born in Philadelphia, and gained his art education at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts. At the beginning of his artistic career he aspired to be a painter, but when people noticed the beauty of his paintings’ carved frames and commented that they looked even better than his paintings, he decided to pursue woodworking. As a furniture maker he oversaw mainly works of interior design and sculptural furnishings, leading his style to constantly evolve over the many decades of his creative career. Assisted by cabinetmaker John Schmidt, he began making furniture informed by Arts and Crafts motifs, but then marched into the organic realm of German Expressionism, Cubism, and the works of Rudolf Steiner. Esherick’s recognized design inclinations include the use of prismatic and angular shapes, and during the later decades of his groundbreaking achievements he was known for his adaptation of free formed organic shapes, informed by the curvilinear lines that are so prevalent in the natural elements that surrounds us.
Working from his farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania Esherick laid out the tenants of what later would become both the principles and the sources of inspiration for many American craftspersons of our time. So, it is not surprising how in recent decades since his death, his studio, now The Wharton Esherick Museum, attracts lovers and practitioners of wood from all over the country.
For those who can’t visit the museum, but also for those who can or have, the documentary brings you closer to Esherick’s work by showing you his studio and many of his pieces. It also opens a door to his thinking process via archived audio recordings of the man himself, in addition to current conversations with historians, curators and clients. This beautifully shot and masterfully edited documentary is a great watch and an important landmark for anyone interested in the history of American decorative arts, Studio crafts in general, and the world of one of the greatest furniture designers in modern times.
Below, you can watch the official documentary’s trailer:
In this short clip, Paul Eisenhauer the former director of the Esherick Museum speaks about Esherick’s legacy and the documentary.