Deceptively Simple

Wharton Esherick's SK Chairs

The Schutte-Koerting Company boardroom, c. 1942-43. Photo courtesy Wharton Esherick Museum Collection.

In 1942, Wharton Esherick was commissioned by long-time client Helene Koerting Fischer, president of equipment manufacturing company Schutte-Koerting, to make new boardroom furniture conveying the company’s progressive direction. Esherick created what are now known as the “SK” chairs, which were simple yet revolutionary. Their organic, arcing design reflected the shapes and lines he saw in the trees and their construction inspired future iconic designs, including Arthur Espenet Carpenter’s Wishbone chair. Over time, Esherick expanded the SK theme for dining chairs with a variety of upholstery and wood types. The present set of chairs are production prototypes that were acquired from the artist in the 1960s by the current owner’s father. The furniture Esherick crafted for Schutt-Koerting, meanwhile, was donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art by Mrs. Koerting Fischer after the sale of the company in the early 1970s and was used in their own boardroom for years. Ahead of their time, Esherick's SK chairs remain an icon of American craft furniture design almost a century after their conception.

Wharton Esherick 1887–1970

Wharton Esherick was an American artist and craftsman whose influence on craft furniture design and architectural forms spanned decades. Esherick pioneered the Postwar American Studio Craft movement applying a technique that bridged the gap between expressionist art and craft. His furniture was non-traditional: both sculptural and functional while focused on organic, asymmetric forms. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Esherick studied wood and metal working at Central Manual Training High School and later drawing and printmaking at the Pennsylvania Museum School of the Industrial Arts. In 1908 he received a painting scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but did not complete the program, instead he pursued commercial art and book illustration while continuing to paint on the side.

In the early 1920s, he moved to rural Paoli, Pennsylvania in order to live a lifestyle more immersed in nature. At this time his woodworking began to take form combining modern art with hand wood shaping creating frames for his paintings which developed into carved woodcuts. By 1926 his sculpture was exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York, and he began to hand-build a studio on his land, which in 1993 was named a National Historic Landmark and opened to the public as the Wharton Esherick Museum.

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