Wharton Esherick spent his early years as an impressionist painter in his hometown of Philadelphia. Influenced equally by Thoreau’s Walden and the Arts-and-Crafts movement, Esherick strove to live a spartan, natural existence. To that end, he and his wife bought a dilapidated stone house in rural Pennsylvania and began growing their own vegetables, reading by candlelight, and making their own clothes and tools.
His woodworking career began with a set of hand-me-down chisels and a job producing woodblock prints for novels. In an effort to sell more paintings, he began making hand-carved frames to accompany them. Soon, his frames garnered more attention than his paintings, and the simple furnishings he made for his home and studio were purchased by visiting patrons.
His pieces reflected the modern lines of contemporary sculptors such as Brancusi, as well as the hand-tooled surfaces of traditional Pennsylvanian furniture. During a time when most Americans favored machine-made products, Esherick’s furniture emphasized the tactile nature of handmade objects. In doing so, he opened the door for later furniture makers such as Sam Maloof and George Nakashima.