E N Curtis

Woodworker. Artist. Teacher. Chucklehead.

An Intro to Escherick

It's difficult for me to describe Wharton Escherick. I've heard people talk of him as the Dean of American Craftsman, a painter, a sculptor, and a hermit. But as best as I can see he's a man not wholly dissimilar to me—someone who wants to leave his creations behind for the world in hopes of making it just a bit more beautiful. In that, I believe he succeeded. I think the best way he's been described is as follows (borrowed from whartonesherickmuseum.org):  "His legacy lies not in establishing a style, his designs were too unique, but in pioneering the way for successive generations of artists working in wood to exhibit and market their original, non-traditional designs."

In my mind, however, his genius lies not in his ability to create unique, non-linear furniture designs and execute them with the skill of a master craftsman, but in taking some design that is more akin to sculpture and giving it a shaker-esk function. Form did not follow function, as is the more traditional shaker sense, but rather they were united into one complete and equal entity. A perfect example, and perhaps his most famous piece, is his spiral staircase at left. It's impossible to tell whether he set out knowing he needed a staircase and so found a material that inspired this piece, or if, in a more Krenovian fashion, he found the material and was inspired to make such a stairway. The form of the piece sheds the limitations of any traditional staircase, spiral or no, and looks like something out of Seuss's "Oh The Places You'll Go." And yet it's function is blatant and it's daily use since it's construction in 1930 speaks to the quality of his craft.

On the opposite end of the Escherick spectrum, at least in the furniture sense, is his bed and drawers pictured at right. His practicality led him to some ideas that seem shaker-esk as I said earlier, and yet when placed within his home amongst so many pieces of art and sculpture they seem all the more mad. The drawer in the picture is part of his dresser, which sits under his bed, both in order to raise his bed to the level of the southern facing window bay, and also to leave more room for his beloved books. He hated searching through drawers, however, for articles of clothing, so instead he made several shallow drawers which would be only a couple folded shirts deep. 

Escherick was arguably the most important figure in American crafts, or at the very least one of them, in the 20th century, and he was downright fascinating. If you are ever in the greater Philadelphia area—Paoli to be precise—you should visit his home, which is now a museum. And if you are searching for inspiration, don't forget to look deeper into Escherick. I've spent several weeks now learning and reading about him, and I'm far from tired of it. If one day I stumble upon an idea as wonderfully utilitarian and yet beautiful as this library step, then I'll know I will have done something special.