Monday, March 12, 2012

The market for Esherick

George Nakashima popped up on my radar pretty quickly, as did Sam Maloof. And there's sustained interest in their works, in part, I think, because they had a very recognizable style, and because they were successful enough as woodworkers to have enduring legacies. There may be another reason, too, which I'll get into in a minute. After these two gentlemen, if you spend enough time looking into craft furniture, you'll also run across Wharton Esherick. Esherick made furniture, but he started out as a fine artist... first a painter, and from there he moved on to sculpture, and ultimately to building furniture that has a very sculptural feel.

The first piece of his that really caught my eye was a 3 step, spiral library ladder, that I found in a book from the 1960's. (As it turns out, it's a pretty well known piece, of which he produced several. The one pictured above was sold at auction last year for just shy of $120,000.) Some of Esherick's furniture is very clean and approachable, and some of it is very... experimental. But his experiments clearly drove him in a very good direction. And in the end, that's inspiring. Not every experiment will come out as planned... that's why they're experiments. And if you're paying attention, you'll learn from them, as Esherick clearly did. I'm still reading about him, so I'm not going to say much more about him for now. But I wanted to put his name out there, because I don't see it enough.

While Esherick's work is clearly well known among those with a taste for fine craft furniture, I don't read much about him in mainstream woodworking literature. I suspect that the first reason is because his work is sculptural, and it doesn't lend itself very directly to hobby woodworkers, because it doesn't lend itself well to marketable machine techniques: the bread and butter of the advertising industry. There are DVDs and source material out there on how to build Sam Maloof's chairs, and you can even buy the special tapered router bits he used to join the back legs. This is all for sale. Looking at Nakashima's work, his taste in wood, and his ability to use it to best effect, it's clear that he was a true artist. But it's not hard for a hobbyist with basic machinery to reverse engineer and make an inferior version that still looks reasonably attractive. Much like the rash of Roubo benches I wrote about, I think these are potential examples of more consumer hobby woodworking, because the directions are out there. The industry promotes specific projects and styles that lend themselves to a technique or tool that's for sale, so that the readers at home can "Build Your Own! In a Weekend!" I'm not knocking on anyone who wants to build their own furniture. But I do feel the need to draw a line between following directions, and original work.

But the other issue I see at play here is that there isn't really a good market for trial and error, and experimentation.  Most hobby woodworkers I've talked to bought their jigs and tools with projects in mind. They weren't really interested in the jigs, so much as they were interested in the chair that the jig would help them build. The process is just an obstacle to be overcome with an off the shelf tool, and not necessarily worthy of admiration or study in its own right. Consumer woodworking in this regard is a sort of middle man for many people who really just want better furniture. So, the magazines and catalogs will provide them with projects (products) that are already designed, drafted, and come with stock lists all made up, so there's not much thinking or creativity required. The creative part has all been done, and so most of the 'bugs' (and, by association, much of the risk of error) have been worked out. It becomes an exercise in kit making and assembly. These folks aren't really engaged in figuring out how to make the thing they're making: They're making the parts they were told to make, and assembling them in the way they were told, and hoping that nothing goes too horribly awry.

Esherick's work doesn't really lend itself to that kind of mentality.


Chris Schwarz said...


As someone who has worked on the editorial side of media his entire life, I know that it's very easy for people to connect the don't between advertising and editorial. And it starts to look like a conspiracy real quick.

It's not that simple. The reason that woodworking magazines have simple projects suited for machines is the readers are beginners. There will always be more beginners in a craft than experts. Most people (like yourself) graduate out of the magazines.

If there were a conspiracy, then advertising-free magazines such as Shopnotes and Woodsmith would be filled with cool stuff. Not no. It's all straight-line stuff.

Great post. Esherick was a pioneer. Also look around for Wendell Castle.

JW said...

Thanks, Chris.

Castle's on my short list.

robert said...


One magazine that has moved beyond the simple, straight-line stuff, and has interesting and inspirational work is Woodworker West Magazine. I'm sure you know about this publication, but it is worth a mention. The articles are ok (banal- like most woodworking mags), but the profiles of craftsmen and the work they picture are very cool.

Best regards,