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.

You can take tours of the house; you are not supposed to take pictures, but as I arrived late, I didn't hear that instruction until I had already taken a few. The main room of the studio is filled with Esherick's work, which is beautiful. It is also whimsical. A stand for friends who were musicians is two-sided, so they could face one another. A shelf underneath was meant not for sheets of music, but to hold their drinks.

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.)

I had never even heard of this work, three hexagons with diamond-shaped roof planes; it is idiosyncratic, probably because Esherick tampered with Kahn's design during construction, putting a slight curve into walls that were meant to be straight.

I could almost smell the whiskey, and hear the fire crackling in the enormous stone hearth, and watch the sculptural pieces throw lively shadows on the walls. I could imagine how much fun it might have been to build your own, cozy, small house to suit your needs, your movements, your desires, framing views from your bed, wrapping a deck at exactly the place the breezes come off the woods, siting the outhouse to get the best view. You could stay up reading and talking as late as you wanted, without bothering a soul. I thought of how much my sons would have enjoyed the house. It just seemed so, well, man cave. Just the kind of sturdy place you would want to retreat to, bear-like, where you could be as messy as you wanted, but you would always know where everything was. And you would never have more than you needed.

Esherick lived in his house, and his house lived around him, changing as he grew older, until he died in 1970.


Sixpence and A Blue Moon said...

WOW! What a talented and creative man he was. What vision. Just goes to show we can make things happened if we believe in our dreams.

Happy Weekend to you!

team gloria said...


just wanted to say how much i relish your blog - and still dip into both of your last books on my iTouch as i head into the depths of midtown meltdown at the end of a tough week ;-)

sending lovely spring thoughts.

btw, i just blogged about leo lerman - did you know him?


all the best, team gloria.

William said...

In a word, AWESOME!

Karena said...

So much artistry, creativity and genius in one. The house is wonderful and the furniture just incredible!

Thank you Dominique, so glad you were able to tour..

Art by Karena

pamingram said...

gosh, so much to respond to.. a louis kahn addition...the fireplace mantlepiece...all such artistry...love the exterior textures. the amazing craftsmanship, no way to adequately respond but to say thank you. psi

karenleslie said...

all of it so gorgeous. and that music stand!

thanks for taking us along and hyperlinking us to new worlds...

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Anonymous said...

My parents live near Paoli and in the early 1980's we toured the Esherick house several times. It became obvious during the tour that the elderly woman who led the tour had been romantically involved with Esherick. She'd say, "don't touch that!" or "that was Wharton's favorite..." or "Wharton would sit here and..." It was if he had just stepped out. You can feel his body in that house because everything is built to touch--the sculpted light pull is right where his arm would reach out. I too loved his bed, a throne of sorts -- he built a shelf that pulled out over his bed with a light, for books and reading. And the shower! I've had the luck to renovate a few houses and I always think of Esherick; I try to design and plan--where will my hand naturally reach? Let's put the light switch there. Where will I stand and gaze into the garden? Let's put the sink and window there. How will my lover tell my story when I'm gone?

Warren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Warren said...

Wow! What great photos. You are a double threat! Glad you arrived late. Somehow you capture the mood of natural light and saturate all those wonderful colors. Yet I can still see detail in the shadows. Having lived near there and never gone I am heart-broken not to have seen it. Looks like his fireplace smoked as does mine. All his tools are used too, not just there for the art direction.

Violet Cadburry said...

A lovely man cave. What a talent, but what in the world is the stool with the A frame top used for?

Jen of MadeByGirl said...

wow this is so awesome! love the staircase. great job


ArchitectDesign™ said...

What an amazingly personal space. That is what I love most about it I think. I'm sure Kahn threw a fit about that curved wall!

Joanna said...

Very surprising interior! It's not the most spacious but the arrangement of the furniture makes it look big and spacious. I also like the wooden stairs, very cool! Check out also 3D Rendering

patriciabrad said...

Dominique, that is my great-uncle's house! We went there to visit in the summers, but my mother used to spend the night there with her cousin Ruth, when they were girls and it was still a house. It's extraordinary. Every square inch is considered. I have one of Wharton's wooden bowls, a painting and some prints. I adore that house and I'm so glad you saw it.

I love your blog. xx Patricia Bradbury

Design Directory said...

The man is a dreamer. He is an inspiration. He tells us that dreams are meant to be pursued.

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