Esherick Museum is a woodworking mecca
I’ve been to only three other places that are anything like the Wharton Esherick Museum: Sam Maloof’s compound, George Nakashima’s studios, and the Gamble House in Pasadena, designed by the Greene brothers. In all four the furniture, buildings, art, and environment are of a piece, the outpouring of an artistic mind that never stopped creating. Each man loved wood first and foremost, but each also had a fearless approach to other materials and methods.
Who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with a completely handmade world? These artists actually did it. Through their furniture, they also ushered in the idea of the fine woodworker, who sees no division between art and craft.
In Philadelphia last week for a college visit, I took my daughter and in-laws to the Esherick museum, just 1/2 hour outside the city, in the town of Paoli. As I had hoped, they left as inspired as I did. Tours are by appointment only, but they are easy to set up.
Like Maloof, Esherick started by drawing, constantly. His first forays into wood were frames for his paintings. Later he made some of the most captivating wood block prints by any American artist. That led to wood sculpture, and then carving on furniture, and then finally whole furniture pieces, with a flowing, modern style that has been hugely influential.
But what is most amazing about Esherick’s house and studios is how the art and invention never end, from handcrafted lighting fixtures that swing out to where they are needed at any moment, to cozy yet completely efficient spaces that bring to mind a ship’s cabin, to a three-story atrium Esherick that Esherick called “a sculpture well.”
Just like my first visit, 13 years ago, I left this time deeply inspired to make my next home handmade from top to bottom, inside and out. You’ll feel the same if you visit.
Esherick designed his house to fit in with the barns of Chester County, but threw in curves and colors all his own. He developed a method of coloring and spraying concrete that gave the silo its tie-dyed look.
Like his home, Esherick's studio buildings have no square corners. Check out the faux-dovetails, and the indigo wash on the concrete, intended to look like blue jeans.
I love the artist's stylized signature. The W, for Wharton, is a sunrise motif that Esherick used often in his home and furniture.
The house is full of Esherick's furniture, displaying his full evolution as a maker. In the background you can just see a giant sculpture poking up through the open center of the house.
The kitchen holds many examples of Esherick's boundless creativity. The table has one leg, the hand-fitted cherry floor makes the pattern of a woman with hand on hip, the shelves have raised, carved edges to keep cups from falling, and the light fixtures are handmade from a variety of materials.
Esherick's first forays into woodworking were large sculptures.
When one of his wood sculptures proved popular--like his stylized version of Winnie the Pooh--Esherick would have castings made of it.
You get to walk up and down Esherick's two-part spiral stairs, which follow a mastodon tusk that acts as a handrail.
Esherick's handcarved platters and vessels have inspired many others like them.
The house is built into the side of a hill, and Esherick enjoyed his evening cocktails on a curvy deck overlooking the wooded valley below.
This barn is the first building Esherick built on the property. It now houses the gift store. Notice how the peak is skewed to the right.
That shift gives the roof a deep curve on both sides. Cedar shingles follow with no problem.