A Master's Life Unfolds

A Master's Life Unfolds

Esherick1.jpg

Mansfield Bascom, long married to Wharton Esherick's daughter Ruth, spent many years fine-tuning his much-anticipated manuscript. (Photo by Mark LaFavor.)

Wharton Esherick:
The Journey of a
Creative Mind

By Mansfield Bascom
Abrams, $80
abramsbooks.com

Wharton Esherick needs little introduction in the world of American craft, so it may come as some surprise that the first monograph of his life and work is coming out only now, a scant two years before the 125th anniversary of his birth. For the uninitiated, Esherick's sculptural furniture inspired a generation of studio furniture makers, including Sam Maloof and Wendell Castle. Less known are his woodcuts, sculpture and, from early in his career, painting in a late-Impressionist style.

Within these pages, the arc of his creative life unfolds. We see how Esherick develops as a person and an artist through friendships forged (with novelist and playwright Sherwood Anderson and fellow artist-craftsman-designer Henry Varnum Poor, among others), involvement in eurhythmic dance and theater, the creation of a studio (today a museum) and a march of commissions that delivered him through the Great Depression's lean years to triumph as the "spiritual father" of the postwar studio furniture movement.

Author Mansfield Bascom, long married to Esherick's daughter Ruth and a chief instigator of the Wharton Esherick Museum near Philadelphia, spent many years fine-tuning his much-anticipated manuscript.The result is a generous and highly readable narrative that is full of anecdotal detail that could only come from one so closely connected. While some scholars (this one included) may lament the omission of footnotes, the inclusion of a helpful chronology, index and no fewer than 250 color illustrations in this large-format book help to justify its hefty price tag.

Caroline Hannah is a design historian living in New York.