My sons and I took a cross-country trip, New York to San Francisco, by train last winter. They were particularly delighted by the sleeper cars, kitted out with bunk beds, one of which was pinned up to the wall during the day, toilet, sink, which tipped up so that its contents spilled down into the toilet, and tiny closet. Everything was snugly fitted like a jigsaw puzzle. It was cozy, satisfying, with just enough space for what you needed for your trip. Theo was so pleased, when we first saw our berths, that he exclaimed that when he built his own house, one day, it would be designed the same way.
Memories of my sons' pleasure at this form of domestic architecture came to me when I recently visited the Wharton Esherick house in Pennsylvania. Or rather, the Wharton Esherick Man Cave, as I began to see it. It seems almost sacrilegious to say that Esherick was a furniture designer. He was a sculptor, who worked in wood; his work was as useful as it was beautiful, it brought art to craft and craft to art. It was completely sui generis; no one could possibly imitate the lyrical, organic lines of his style. He made everything from water jugs and chairs to stairs and buildings. He might be considered the "godfather" of the Studio Furniture Movement.
Esherick began his work as a painter and illustrator. He ultimately carved into woodblocks the art for nine books. He began to work in wood by carving frames for his paintings. By 1950, he was designing and making chairs, tables, bookcases, and fireplaces. He and his wife moved out of Philadelphia into the countryside near Paoli, which at the time was semi-rural, though it now feels suburban, of course. They lived in a farmhouse, and set aside a plot of land to grow vegetables--in case he couldn't sell his work.
He did. Clients returned year after year for yet another piece. His biggest commission, for the Curtis Bok house, in 1935, started as a bookcase and grew as organically as did his work. It eventually included four fireplaces, two desks, four sofas, wall and ceiling panelling, and more. (Curtis Bok was a lawyer and a judge, whose most famous opinion is an elegant piece of writing on obscenity in literature.)
In 1926, Esherick began working out of a studio that he designed inspired by local stone barns. The walls are massive; they taper at the base, much the way a tree trunk does at the ground. The joints between the stones are deeply raked, so that the boulders are clearly visible. Eventually, Esherick spent more time up at the studio; he built a bed, just at window height, into an alcove so that he could lie and watch the woodland life, and the sun move across the sky. Ranged over the window are shelves to hold some books; his clothing fit neatly into deep drawers underneath the double bed. There is also seating around his bed. A wonderful place to entertain.
The bedroom is reached by a beautiful spiral staircase. A trap door ingeniously counterweighted would swing down to keep out the sawdust from the studio below. His family remained in the farmhouse below; Esherick had a house of his own. As the years went by, he added more rooms. A wooden structure contained a kitchen with a bath beneath it, and a room above for his son. Then, in the sixties, like all good homeowners, he decided to expand his kitchen, and added the curvilinear "silo", painting the concrete to resemble the autumnal woods.
I found the place sort of enchanting. I could almost hear the artist, gathered with his friends in the woods, cooking, drinking, smoking, talking. Sherwood Anderson was a close pal. (And this reminds me that it is time to reread Winesburg, Ohio, a book that made a great impression on me as a much younger reader. Anderson had a nervous breakdown in 1912, left his wealthy wife and their three children to "escape from materialistic existence" and went off to pursue his creativity. But two years later he was back in Chicago, back in advertising, and back to marriage. So much for running away from home. I might add that he died of a perforated colon at the age of 64 while on a South American cruise, having swallowed the toothpick that speared the olive in his martini. Ever the optimist, he was, by then, on his fourth marriage.) A wonderful black and white photograph of Anderson hangs in the bedroom.
In the mid-fifties, Esherick asked his friend the architect Louis Kahn for help designing a proposed workshop. (I will resist a digression on Louis Kahn's social habits; just rent the excellent and very moving documentary made by his son, called My Architect.)
Esherick lived in his house, and his house lived around him, changing as he grew older, until he died in 1970.