Wharton Esherick has been the recipient of many monikers within the Style Arts world. However, the most well-known accolade was the one he often used himself, the Dean of American Craftsman. Esherick was a true American modernist. As one of the first, he successfully helped to shape the way America would look and feel, but like all visionaries, he did so much more. Esherick was a dancer, builder, fine artist, illustrator, dreamer and doer; but most importantly he pioneered the path that so many great American Style Artists would follow both then and now.
Wharton Esherick was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1887. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art with the intention of pursuing a career as a fine artist. However, Esherick’s career as a painter never matured. Clients loved the details and artistic sophistication of his frames, but were generally unmoved by the colors on the canvas. During the 1920's, he initiated a provocative and iconic series of wood block prints that today still delight and challenge critics and collectors alike.
It wasn't until the mid 1920's that he would hear his calling, Style Arts, a genre that successfully blurred the boundaries between art, sculpture and furniture. This passion, this vision, uniquely Esherick, would guide the rest of his life and career. It would forever alter the way the world views the artful co-mingling of these previously distinct concepts.
In 1913, Wharton and his wife Letty moved to Paoli, Pennsylvania where he began to design, produce and sell sculpture and Style Arts. He successfully upset all previous balances by deftly blurring common furniture forms with the power and sophistication of modern design. This beautiful place in the Pennsylvania woods would remain his home, his workshop and his laboratory until his death in 1970.
Esherick had an enthusiastic involvement with the nearby Hedgerow Theatre. In 1934, he produced two grand sculptures, “Cheeter and Jeeter” revered sentinels welcoming all those entering the theatre grounds. They took the form of two almost life sized horses perfectly captured in mid stride. They were favorites among Hedgerow's children and remained a fixture until 1956, when Hedgerow parents funded a bronze duplicate. The two originals retired from duty returning to Esherick's studio. One of these historically important sculptures, Jeeter, is now stabled at Modernism Museum Mount Dora.
Throughout the 1930's Esherick redefined his art by exploring the conceptual limits of wood and design. He found new and innovative ways to coax ordinary wood to sing, as a result, he was selected to design a room for the “World of Tomorrow”, the official name of the 1939 World's Fair. He eagerly threw himself into the task. His room deftly imagined a world where interior living space would seamlessly blend with the beauty and power of nature, yet peacefully coexist with man made limitations. Esherick integrated his world famous 1930 spiral staircase as well as a small but telling side table; a piece, produced in 1929 that whispered of designs to come. This small table, alive with clever architectural nuances, in addition to his seminal and curvaceous 1963 staircase from the Watson House have both found a new platform from which to speak, Modernism Museum Mount Dora.
One of Esherick's lasting contributions to the Style Arts Movement has become apparent only in the years after his death. His ability to experience a financial return from his work while pursuing his artistic vision has inspired the next generations of artists. Using his example as a touchstone, Style Artists from then until now have followed his trail. Indeed, Esherick is the Dean of American Craftsman.