Woodworking Artistry in Abundance at the Wharton Esherick Museum

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This article is from Issue 89 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The main building. What began as a stone workshop in 1926 eventually became Esherick’s home and studio, with additions and alterations taking place for the next 40 years.

By Rob Spiece

The Wharton Esherick Museum is a stop every woodworker should put on his or her bucket list. Tucked away on a winding road in suburban Philadelphia, this beautiful property includes the artist’s home and studio, a 1928 Expressionist garage (now serving as the Visitor Center), and other buildings, all situated on a wooded, 12-acre site. We’ve been including a visit to the Esherick museum as part of the curriculum at the Lohr School of Woodworking. No matter how many times I visit, I always find something new. 

While it’s called a museum, the experience is not a stuffy one. Visitors are encouraged to touch the furniture and take in the ambience of Esherick’s home and studio. Staff members who lead small groups through different rooms and around the property make you feel as though Wharton’s not home right now, but he could walk in at any moment. You can even find his clothing, neatly arranged in a smooth-running drawer under his bed. 

Esherick’s hand is evident in every corner of the home. The furniture is amazing, but the depth of the experience is really driven home when you notice small details like carved light switch plates and heat registers with hand-cut openings. The list of hand-sculpted elements goes on: latches, knobs, coat hooks—even toilet seats. In the living room, you’ll come across the most amazing hardwood floor you’ve ever seen. But the most famous feature here is the spiral staircase Esherick built in 1930 to connect three of the building’s four levels. Sculpted from large pieces of red oak, the stairway is a striking expression of Esherick’s sinuous, organic design aesthetic.

Spectacular steps. Each bolt in Esherick’s spiral stair extends through a rectangular cover plate, meeting up with a captive nut in a tread tenon.

If you’re visiting the museum on a weekend, you may be in for a special treat. On the second Sunday of each month (except for January, February, and September), you’re likely to find woodworkers and other artists doing demonstrations on the grounds. On these days, the museum opens the studio for visitors to explore on their own, with docents in each room to answer questions and demonstrate the furniture. Other special events include the Wharton Esherick Woodworking Competition & Exhibition. This event attracts woodworkers from around the globe who submit pieces inspired by Esherick’s vision. Winning entries go on exhibition in the Visitor Center. 

Wharton Esherick passed away in 1970 at the age of 82. Folks who pay a visit to his home and studio are sure to come away feeling that his legacy of creativity and craftsmanship is alive and well. If you’re a woodworker, you’ll be amazed and inspired by what you discover.



Who needs 90° angles? Sharp lines and contrasting angles conjure up a distorted, magical reality in this desk and chair set. Executing such playful designs demanded exceptional craftsmanship. 




Delightful details. Every room includes ingeniously crafted features. Two favorites are the intricate latch above, and the whimsical heating vent carved into a wall panel. 

fastFACTS

  • Early photos show Esherick’s spiral stairway with wedges holding tenoned treads in place. But Esherick modified the stair so it could be disassembled and put back together. The stairway was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair in 1940, then at New York’s Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1959.








A playful work station. Esherick’s drop-leaf desk is an excellent example of the artist’s ability to create sculptural, organic furniture without sacrificing functionality. The base contains a large, shallow drawer for drawings. More flat files are hidden behind a pair of carved doors.

From trash to treasure. Free wood scraps from a local sawyer were transformed by Esherick into a puzzle-piece floor. He also used odd-shaped boards as wall paneling.

Visiting Information

  • Address: 

1520 Horseshoe Trail,
Malvern, PA 19355
Phone: (610) 644-5822
Website: whartonesherickmuseum.org

  • Hours:

By reservation only
Tuesday–Saturday: 10:00AM–4:00PM
Sunday: 1:00PM–4:00PM

  • Ticket Prices:

Adults: $15
Seniors (Ages 65 and up): $13
Students: (ID Required): $12
Children: (Ages 5–12): $8

  • NOTE: Museum tours are by appointment only, so be sure to call ahead or visit the website to schedule your visit.





Twists and turns. A curved railing extends around a masonry-lined sculpture well Esherick created after demolishing a termite-damaged floor. His “Twin Twist” and “Spiral Pole” sculptures were carved from tree trunks.







Hand tool stools. Esherick made many stools like these, always preferring to shape legs and stretchers with hand tools rather than on a lathe.

Wharton Esherick: from painter to pioneer in the studio furniture movement 

Born in Philadelphia in 1887, Wharton Esherick demonstrated an interest in art at an early age, prompting his mother to comment that there was never a blank piece of paper in their home. Esherick studied painting at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts as a young man. At that time, American Impressionist painters were successful, so he was trained in that style. But the goal of imitating others didn’t appeal to Esherick, so he left school before graduating. In 1913, Esherick and his wife, Letty, settled in the countryside outside of Philadelphia, intent on raising a family and making a place for themselves. 

Esherick continued to try to find success as a painter. But his artistic path changed when a friend told him that the hand-carved picture frames he made were more impressive than what was contained within. Esherick took this advice and ran with it, focusing on carving at first, then woodcut printmaking, and (finally) woodworking and furniture making. His work started with heavily carved and embellished surfaces, then morphed into a German expressionist framework, finally maturing into gracefully sculpted surfaces with flowing organic lines. 

Esherick’s first attempts at furniture making are impressive, but when he made a connection with his neighbor, John Schmidt, the work soared to new heights. A German-trained cabinetmaker, Schmidt’s exceptional technical expertise was the perfect complement to Esherick’s artistic creativity, enabling the duo to create amazing furniture. 

Another local friend and colleague, Ed Ray, also helped Esherick on his path. Ray was a local sawyer who often put logs aside for Esherick, knowing that he would want to get his hands on the weirdest and wildest logs. One of the most impressive sculptures in the museum is the “Twin Twist,” a 15'-tall sculpture carved to twistand turn as it ascends. While Esherick did the sculptural work, it was Ed Ray who identified the potential and supplied the log. Esherick’s iconic hardwood floor was made from odd-sized scraps that Ray gave to him (photo above). Ray assumed that these offcuts would serve as firewood, helping to keep the Esherick home warm that winter. Upon seeing the finished floor, he recognized the pieces and never gave Wharton free scraps again.

Esherick was the first among the studio furniture makers here in America. While others would make reproductions in popular styles, Esherick took a chance on himself and made what his creative mind desired. He set an example that makers like Maloof, Nakashima and Castle would follow. Like the Arts and Crafts Movement that originated in England, the American studio furniture movement arose as a rejection of mass-produced goods. Wharton Esherick pioneered this creative rebellion by injecting originality into one-off or limited production pieces that remain iconic today.

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