Sunday, July 13, 2008

Wharton Esherick Museum

Yesterday, we toured the Wharton Esherick Museum, located in Paoli, PA. Esherick, known as "the dean of American craftsmen" was born in 1887 and began his artistic career as a painter. From there, he took up carving, woodcuts, sculpture, and furniture-making.

I knew nothing about Esherick prior to the tour, but learned that he was a major influence in the woodworking styles of Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, and Art Carpenter.

Unfortunately, visitors are only able to take photos outside the complex. Images of his work and shots of the studio interior that are included in this post were found online and on postcards. But they are nothing compared to seeing the pieces housed in his studio, and the studio itself, in person.

I was awestruck. Seemingly every inch of the studio's interior had been touched by his hand. The first thing you notice is the crazy, curved, out-of square angles of the structures. Even the roof lines of his studio and lumber storage building were purposely made to look like caving-in barn roofs.

Inside are furniture pieces that defy traditional woodworking tenets, perhaps because he approached woodworking as an artist, with no formal woodworking training. One dining table's surface was built with three boards, none parallel to one another. Two figured planks had been sawn in half from one board, but rather than bookmatched, were flip-flopped, so each half of the crotchwood flame faced one another from opposite corners. Then the entire table top was cut into a kidney-shape.

There were lots of free-form, organic pieces, but also angular, art deco-inspired pieces. The wall panels were placed in ray patterns; the kitchen floor was made of irregular-shaped pieces of wood that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; and the spiral staircase used an actual mastodon's tusk as a hand rail.

It was torture to not take photos. But our tour guide said a book is in the works, showcasing Esherick's pieces, and set for release in the fall of 2009.

Esherick forged all of the hardware in his studio; his favorite tools were his broad axe and band saw; he used an enormous variety of hardwoods; and his finishes of choice were tung oil & boiled linseed oil.

One piece, a large fold-down secretary, reminded me of Adirondack twig furniture. Instead of using actual twigs, however, he carved leaves and twig shapes over every surface. And this I had never seen before: the rails of the cabinet doors ended not at the stile, but continued further to form handcarved barrel hinges.

The museum tour was well worth the entrance fee (only $10). And navigating the too-small parking area and the fact that they don't accept credit or debit cards were minor inconveniences.

I left completely inspired. And you can't put a price on that.

Photos include his studio (the building with the stone foundation), the gift shop (the log cabin that formerly housed his lumber), and his workshop (the blue buildings, in which his daughter now lives, and which were not part of the tour).


Dan said...

Awesome! Thanks for posting this! Esherick is someone who I am not very familiar with - I have heard/read the name but never had "pictures" to go with it. It really helps seeing where he lived - what an amazing space.

Did you see the recent article on his Corner Desk in Woodwork? That was the first piece of his I can remember seeing (and I think I would remember) and now having read/seen your post I can understand how the desk is not an anomaly. Cool.

Bummer about the no inside photos. Nice save with the postcards! And too bad his workshop was not preserved (assuming it was not as you said his daughter lives in that building...) as I would have loved to have seen that!

Vic Hubbard said...

You people on the East Coast, have no idea how lucky you are to be in the middle of all that history. Well, maybe you do, but I still like saying it. Although, I love the Northwest, I would love to be able to tour the original states. You lucky, lucky people.

The Village Carpenter said...

Dan, thanks for mentioning the article in Woodwork; I had forgotten.
Yeah, I'm surprised we don't see more written about Esherick. And there doesn't seem to be too many images of his pieces online.

Vic, I definitely appreciate living on the East Coast, and PA in particular.

Bill Stankus said...

Perhaps you are the butterfly that suddenly flies, air currents are stirred and eventually change is felt in lives thousands of mile away.

Esherick was a major influence on the 1970's woodworking Renaissance. His work was seen in the first issues of Fine Woodworking and his designs and techniques were much discussed.

Also, there were many books published during that time that explored and explained Esherick and other early designers.

I suspect that if you look closely at the work of those that started working wood in the 1960s and 70s you would see bits and pieces of Esherick in their early works.

Vic Hubbard said...

Again, that's why I love Woodwork Magazine so much. Rather than the traditional approach to woodworking (which they also cover), they delve into woodwork as functional (and often non-functional) art.

The Village Carpenter said...

Bill, I'm going to start looking around for information on him. A reader wrote to tell me that the museum published a 30-page booklet on his work, but they apparently did not have any copies when I was there.

I agree, Vic. Woodwork showcases some incredibly imaginative work.

acanthuscarver said...


The 30 page booklet was published by the Tinicum Press in 1977. I'm not sure it's still in print. Even looking through the booklet, there are only a few pieces illustrated. The booklet has paintings, woodcuts, scuplture and other items. As a woodworker, I'd rather see more of his furniture and architectural work. If things haven't changed, his favorite bandsaw is in his daughter's kitchen.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a several pieces of Esherick's but I'm not sure how many are on display. As one of the pioneers of modern furniture, Esherick deserve more recognition for his work.

I, for one, will be writing much more about him in the coming weeks and months. I'm even planning on having a class based around building an Esherick piece.

Glad you enjoyed your visit.

The Village Carpenter said...

Thanks for the write-up on the booklet, Chuck. I won't look too hard for it if it doesn't highlight mainly his furniture. I did see the massive, deco-inspired fireplace at the Philadelphia Museum and it is wildly impressive. I'll look forward to reading more about him on your blog. You are near me, I think. Stop by sometime if you're in the area!

acanthuscarver said...


Read the other posts, glad your surgery went well.

The fireplace is only one of several items the museum owns. Like many large museums in this country, the PMA has almost as much (if not more) stuff in storage as they do on display.

Not exactly sure where you are but I know you're relatively close. I may just take you up on your offer. It goes without saying, you're welcome to stop in to my shop any time you're in this area. Get well soon.

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tikagem said...

Awesome. My grandmother has a bunch of Esherik pieces... There's this one desk that's absolutely fantastic-- absolutely beautiful, it fits into this one corner of the house... doesn't even LOOK like a desk until you open it up. It's a really sentimental piece for her, though, since our family has had it forever. Her mum was a friend of Esherik or something...
I guess I need to do some more research on the family history!