Sculpture to furniture? Or vice-versa?

The furniture in Wharton Esherick’s Pennsylvania mountainside home is a testament to his unfailing creative imagination. Also seen is a sculpture depicting entwined lovers, carved from the trunk of a walnut tree.

“If it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing!” Wharton Esherick (1887 – 1970), an internationally significant figure in the landscape of art history and American modern design, once famously said.

As a sculptor, Esherick worked primarily in wood and extended his unique forms to furniture, furnishings, interiors, buildings, and more. He created furniture that would pass as sculpture, and sculpture that functioned as furniture, bridging the gap between art and craft.

He welcomed commissions for one-of-a-kind furniture and interiors, not just for the income, but for the joy of creating new, exciting forms for everyday use. In the 1930s, he was producing sculptures and furniture influenced by German Expressionism and Cubism.

The angular and prismatic forms of these art movements gave way to the free-form curvilinear shapes for which he is best known. From furniture and furnishings he progressed to interiors, the most famous being the Curtis Bok House (1935–37).

Although the house was demolished, Esherick’s work was saved. The fireplace and adjacent music room doors can be seen in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the foyer stairs in the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami, Florida.

His largest commission, begun in 1935, when he was 52, as “some interesting bookshelves for two tonnes of books,” which grew to include four fireplaces, two desks, four sofas, upholstered chairs, wall and ceiling panelling, two portals and a spiral stair that are now in museums.

Esherick’s most astonishing creation was his small mountainside home in Pennsylvania. Begun in 1926 as a sculpting studio, it evolved and expanded over that artist’s lifetime into a multi-purpose, multi-level stone and wood structure.

In 1972 the studio was converted into the Wharton Esherick Museum. Set on 12 wooded acres, the museum campus comprises of multiple buildings with the studio as the centrepiece. The house’s furniture is a testament to Esherick’s unfailing creative imagination.

A case in point: his 1939 flat top desk – expanses of burnished American walnut combined with decorative elements in exotic wood –takes its inspiration from the humble sawhorse, turning that everyday object into a powerfully dynamic yet highly functional form.

Esherick saw the floors in the house as an opportunity to showcase the expressive and practical possibilities of locally sourced wood. One striking example is also in the kitchen, where he took scrap walnut and apple wood from a local woodcutter, laid the pieces down jigsaw style, and produced the most wonderfully sinuous underfoot pattern.

In 1930, Esherick installed what is undoubtedly the house’s most famous feature: a spiral staircase constructed from massive slabs of hand-hewn Red oak.

Esherick’s work was featured in exhibitions hundreds of times during his life. His work is in the permanent collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, and many other museums and galleries. Most of his work remains in private hands. (


Wharton Esherick’s flat top desk and its matching chair are made from American walnut with exotic wood decorative elements.



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