If you are excited about the beauty and ingenuity of American art, design and craftsmanship – or would like to learn more about it – spend some time lingering over the Modernism Museum Mount Dora’s latest exhibit. Their newest offering, “esherick to NAKASHIMA” is subtitled, “the theme continues…the DNA of Modernism.”
That subtitle is an essential key to understanding the museum’s showcase of the evolution of modernism studio art furniture. It’s a rare opportunity to see the progression of an art form in one location, in one formidable display, from the largest collection of its kind in the world. These are furnishings that incorporate and celebrate the beauty of nature. The exhibit offers an insight into an aesthetic that was created, that came into existence, through the talented design of the very artists who are featured.
And it is beautiful – as much in the totality of the exhibit as in the design elements of the individual works. Because they are crafted from and bound by the characteristics of wood, each piece is different, each has a glow, a patina, a curvature of line, and of grain, that sets it apart from any companion piece present. There are smooth surfaces, soft and rounded edges, and free forms that are organic, sensual and intimate in their combinations. Brought together, they form a thoughtful and cohesive progression of a genre.
This exhibit shows the genesis of a very specific art form. The modernism furniture movement in America, as seen through the exhibit’s primary artists, was propelled to prominence by the works of Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) and then George Nakashima (1905-1990). These men veered off of the course of tradition – which had previously been to create art for art’s sake. They created an art movement, a type of design, an aesthetic both beautiful and useable.
After WWII, as mainstream America was enthusiastically embracing the conformity and abundance of readily available mass-produced furniture, Esherick and Nakashima were swimming furiously upstream against the trend. They were designing and crafting furniture that was not purchased simply for its utility and consistency; they were creating pieces that were prized and coveted because they were spectacularly unique, rare, but functional works of art.
Today, many experts see Wharton Esherick as the finest American furniture maker who ever lived. Nakashima, who came closely on Esherick’s heels, embraced the sensibilities and aesthetics of Esherick’s work, but added his own sense of refinement, showmanship and, even in some cases, a Shaker influence to the furniture he designed. These two men were the first people to design and create furnishings in which nature and art were essential elements – elements as important as the functionality and intended use of each piece.
In doing this, whether consciously aware, or not, they were also creating a market, one that had never previously existed. Their clientele were wealthy and upper-middle class professionals seeking, through the craftsmanship of Esherick’s and Nakashima’s designs, an aesthetic that also had never before existed. The two were creating a marriage of art and entrepreneurship that Americans had not experienced to that point.
According to John Sollo, board of trustee member of the museum and an acknowledged, leading authority on the works of Esherick and Nakashima, the personalities and outlook of the men themselves, had much to do with the creation and evolution of modernism in furnishings.
“Wharton Esherick, is often referred to as ‘The Dean of American Craftsmen,’ but really, he’s more, he’s the guy who started the studio furniture movement in the world…the whole world,” says Sollo. “Esherick had a background in fine arts, he painted a bit and he sculpted. But, in the mid-1920s he started making furniture. He was a hippie before there were hippies,” explains Sollo. “Esherick had proclivities that were…legendary,” Sollo explained, before asking if he should go further. “He loved women, women loved him. It certainly wasn’t a secret. And that had a fundamental influence on his lifestyle and his work.”
“Wharton Esherick was also smart and he was interesting. He led an amazing life. I knew many people who knew him well,” says Sollo. “Especially the ladies… I know ladies who are in their 70s and 80s who knew him well when he was younger. They would all gather, groups of these contemporaries, and hold salons and they would drink and chain smoke, talk politics and play cards all night long. I had the impression Esherick would often take the opposite side of the opinion of the majority in any discussion, just because he so enjoyed being a contrarian,” laughs Sollo.
“The man was married, he had children, but he lived by himself in this very cool little house with his female companion. He had his wife and children in another house on the same property. He lived out in Paoli, at the end of the Main Line in Philadelphia. He was educated, he was handsome, articulate, difficult and interesting,” says Sollo.
Those very characteristics, that force of personality and drive, are what kept Wharton Esherick from just being another man with artistic tendencies who enjoyed making art. He was the central powerhouse who created an art form and delivered it to the world. He was confident enough to break away from any current conventional art forms and prevailing style, to seek his own path. Sollo confirms that, saying,”It was the furniture, his furniture that really broke him loose from the gravity that holds most people.”
Following closely on Wharton Esherick’s heels came George Nakashima. Nakashima represents the next significant step in the evolution of modernism in furniture. Although there were others who had observed, and even imitated, Wharton Esherick’s style and medium, it was Nakashima, who really took modernist studio furnishings to the next level.
He expanded on Esherick’s ‘Studio Furniture.’ “Nakashima carries on with Esherick’s mindset, but with another sensibility, another viewpoint, life experience, a different set of eyes, if you will,” says Sollo. Nakashima had a master’s degree in engineering and architecture, so he brought a completely different background to the same function.
He was technically educated and designed every piece of his furniture, but rarely worked the wood, himself. Nakashima had over 20 craftsmen who constructed his designs, Esherick had only a couple. And while Esherick was working furniture design and production in the 1920s, Nakashima was coming into popularity in the 1950s. As bohemian as Esherick’s lifestyle was, Nakashima’s was that traditional. He was conservative, he was married with children and had an active family life.
“Esherick was an artist, Nakashima, too…but Nakashima was a technical professional, also. Nakashima was more proficient in the science of construction of furniture than Esherick. But, if you look at their furniture, there are lots of similarities that evoke the same kinds of feelings. Nakashima went about it a different way, he used a different methodology to arrive at furniture design – but his designs call for the same response to his pieces as Esherick’s do,” Sollo goes on to explain.
Sollo is clearly impressed, not only with Nakashima’s art, but also his business acumen. “Nakashima really carried the business aspect of furniture design much further than Esherick. He became involved with Knoll Furniture (a design firm that specializes in office furniture), he had a sophisticated and extensive client list, he marketed his designs at a very professional level. Some of Nakashima’s designs even became mass-produced by Widdecombe Furniture and Knoll. That was very controversial among artisans, like conspiring with the enemy,” smiles Sollo.
“But one of the most genius things that Nakashima did, to secure his place as an artisan, was sheer marketing genius,” enthuses Sollo. “He would open his facility on Saturday afternoons and he would greet his potential customers, dressed in his kimono and take them on tours through his facility. When they went in, they had to take their shoes off. In the 1950s that was quite an unusual experience for people. And, that was it, that was the genius, buying from Nakashima was an experience,” says Sollo.
“You were a participant in the creation of your furniture. Nakashima had massive rooms, full of wood. He walked people through those rooms, they selected the wood they liked for their very own piece of furniture. Oh, especially for coffee tables, people would select the tops and he would write their names on the bottom of the piece in chalk, many of the Nakashima pieces you find today are still signed by him, have the client’s name on them, on the bottom. That was part of the whole personal experience of having his art. People are proud of that, they keep that chalk on there forever,” says Sollo. He smiles, “How much of that was natural and how much of that was marketing or showmanship, we’ll never know – but it was an absolute constant when you talk with people about their experience buying Nakashima furniture.”
Asked what he hopes people take away from their experience in the museum, what he hopes visitors understand about their experience in the Modernism Museum Mount Dora’s “esherick to NAKASHIMA” exhibit, Sollo is thoughtful, “I think that too often, we tend to look at art as being something that you buy, you hang on the wall, that you don’t really ever touch or use. We are cheating ourselves if we don’t see all aspects of our lives as having artistic potential – and that’s what these guys did. They not only saw that potential, they brought art to common forms. Today’s furniture is all shapes and sizes and colors – that simply wasn’t around 100 years ago when they started.”
“These men, Esherick and Nakashima and Wendell Castle – whose pieces are also in the museum today – they changed the way our world looks. They did that in the very intimate setting of our own homes and our own work spaces, and,” he gestures towards an Esherick piece, “this guy here, Esherick – he started it all. He created the notion that you can commingle art and furniture. He saw that beautiful, creative things can also be practical centerpieces of our lives. I’d like people to see and understand how that all started.”
Modernism Museum Mount Dora is located at 145 E. Fourth Avenue, Mount Dora, Florida and is open Tuesday – Sunday, 10:00am – 5:00pm. Call 352-385-0034 for additional information. Admission $8 adults, $7 Seniors & College Students with I.D., $5 for ages 4-17 with student I.D., Mount Dora residents, Military and Service Personnel 50% off with I.D. www.ModernismMuseum.org
Melissa DeMarco, Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org)