A master with wood Wharton Esherick, the Paoli artist who was a major inspiration for the modern craft movement, will be the subject of a special exhibition and sale in Manhattan next week.

Posted: May 23, 2003

The name Wharton Esherick should ring a bell.

Anyone who visits his fanciful little home and studio in Paoli is likely to be amazed by the vision of the master craftsman, who fashioned almost everything you see, from footed salad bowls and expressive music stands to that show-stopping staircase.

But only 6,000 visitors come through the museum each year, and Esherick, a 20th-century Thoreau, was never one for self-promotion anyway, preferring to devote himself to his work.

That, and the fact that his furnishings only rarely come up for sale, help explain why prices for Esherick's work haven't risen as dramatically as those for the better-known George Nakashima.

Nakashima's pieces are "part of our design vocabulary, and there are far more of them," said Robert Aibel, owner of Old City's Moderne Gallery, which deals in 20th-century furnishings.

What there is of Esherick's, "you can't pry out of people, because there's something about it that goes beyond furniture," Aibel said. "It was about the man and their relationship with him."

Still, Aibel did manage to get hold of 60 pieces for Moderne's big 1996 Esherick show, and next week he will present at least a score more when he mounts a special exhibition and sale of Esherick's work at Manhattan's prestigious SOFA show (the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art), which deals primarily in contemporary craft.

At the sale, you can snag an Esherick woodcut for as little as $500 or a console and cabinet for as much as $30,000. Next Friday, you can also catch Aibel's talk on the unconventional craftsman, who once said that the tools he used were less important than the results he produced: "I'll use my teeth if I have to."

Esherick (1887-1970) left the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts just weeks before completing his studies, "because he wanted to get out and experiment on his own," said Mansfield Bascom, curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum. He later moved to then-rustic Paoli with his wife, Letty.

He disdained his own painting as derivative. Truer expression would come with his woodcuts, wood sculpture and sculptural furniture.

Esherick got involved with the Hedgerow Theatre in nearby Rose Valley - and with actress Miriam Phillips, with whom he had a romantic relationship from 1939 until his death. (The Eshericks never divorced, however.) His network of friends also included composer George Rochberg, architects George Howe and Louis Kahn, and writers Theodore Dreiser, Ford Madox Ford, and Sherwood Anderson - the last of whom the Eshericks met at a utopian community in Fairhope, Ala.

Rochberg and his wife, Gene, still have vivid memories of their friendship with Esherick and Phillips. The two couples began socializing after Gene Rochberg took an acting class with Phillips at the Hedgerow in 1946.

"I was trying to become a composer, and he was already a fabulous craftsman and artist," George Rochberg recalled from the couple's home in Newtown Square. "We couldn't always afford what he did, but ended up with a small collection of prize possessions of his work."

One day, Esherick was sitting in the Rochbergs' living room and observed a bare wall that turned a right angle. " 'You need a shelf,' he said - which I gather from stories from other people is how things started with Wharton," Rochberg said.

Esherick made no ordinary shelf, but something more akin to a wonderful wing - thin at one end and widening as it turned the right angle.

Rochberg, who also has one of Esherick's music stands, remembered another creation made for him and his wife years later - a sinuous banister that was silken to the touch and prompted a colleague to observe, "What happens to the banister, George, after a few manhattans? Do you think it straightens itself out?"

Rochberg describes Esherick's career as "sort of like a roller-coaster - there were major highs and lows." Sometimes, eking out a living for his family - he and Letty had three children - was a real struggle. At other times, he was the focus of considerable attention, as with his furnishings at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40 and his one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now the Museum of Arts & Design) in New York in 1958.

"Toward the end," said Bascom at the Esherick Museum, "he couldn't have handled any more orders."

Rochberg witnessed some private conversations in which Esherick seemed irritated "at an unfair estimate of what he was doing compared with somebody else making sculpture." But Rochberg also saw the man's playful side, as when he encountered Esherick having a conversation at a New York arts event during the 1960s with a woman who thought he was artist Ben Shahn.

"He didn't say a word to disabuse her of that idea. . . . He felt relaxed and playful and was acting a part in a little drama all his own."

While Esherick was certainly part of a larger scene, "he didn't see that much need to travel around," Bascom said. "His mind was constantly working, and he had to be around for his hands to keep up with the things he was envisioning."

Both Esherick and Nakashima (1905-1990), who lived in Bucks County, were major inspirations for the modern American craft movement, and though they met, there's no evidence they had any relationship beyond that.

But while Esherick made only a few thousand pieces, which include a number of built-ins and woodcut blocks, Nakashima produced about 25,000, and his works have become shelter-magazine fodder.

Nakashima had more people working for him, Aibel said, and they produced his designs, which were standardized in a catalog. "He was very sophisticated about serving a marketplace. Esherick was less concerned about that because he was basically a sculptor," Aibel said.

Nakashima pieces also became more popular because they were swept up in the clamor for midcentury design. "They work so well with Eames" pieces, Aibel said, and pricing then made them accessible. (In the early '90s, chairs could be found for $500 to $1,000, coffee tables for $2,500.)

Aibel compares today's prices for Nakashima and Esherick using 1996 as a benchmark because that was when he mounted his big Esherick show. Since then, Nakashima's work has risen by at least 100 to 200 percent, he said, while Esherick's has gone up 50 to 100 percent.

Over time, of course, the rarity of Esherick's work will likely raise prices.

His music stands now run in the $15,000-to-$20,000 range. Hammer-handle chairs (fashioned of hammer handles and first designed as affordable seating for the Hedgerow) can vary tremendously in price, from $8,000 to $20,000 each, depending on historical value and aesthetics. Spiral library ladders can fetch $15,000 to $25,000.

Personally, Aibel prefers discovering less well-known pieces, such as the stunning blue buffet in his gallery, priced at $75,000, which won't go to New York but will be included in a Moderne show here from June 10 to Aug. 9. Afterward, the buffet will be lent to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts for a show on studio furniture.

It's made of found parts - at least two other buffets and an Art Deco headboard - recombined into a unique form with handles made for it, a cherry top, and feet. Much of it has been painted blue.

"Look at the relationship of the top piece and the bottom," Aibel said, pointing to the rounded top over a section with straighter edges.

"The sculptor in him was finding forms and volumes."

Contact staff writer Diane Goldsmith at 215-854-2474 or dgoldsmith@phillynews.com.

More Information

The SOFA show (for Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) will run from Thursday through June 1 at the Seventh Regiment Armory, Park Avenue and 67th Street, New York. Tickets: $16; 1-800-563-7632, www.sofaexpo.com. Robert Aibel will speak at noon next Friday on "Aesthetics in the Work of Wharton Esherick: From Cubism to Organic Design."

Moderne Gallery, 111 N. Third St., Philadelphia, will present "Masters of the American Craft and Studio Furniture Movement: 1922-1988" from June 10 to Aug. 9, including works by Esherick, George Nakashima, Wendell Castle, and Sam Maloof; 215-923-8536, www.modernegallery.com.

The Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli is open by reservation only, $9 admission, $4 children under 12; 610-644-5822.

Nakashima Studio, 1847 Aquetong Rd., New Hope, offers self-guided tours every Saturday except holiday weekends, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.; no reservation needed, donations accepted for Nakashima Foundation for Peace; 215-862-2272, www.nakashimawoodworker.com.

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