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Wharton Esherick

Spiral Staircase from the Michael Watson House, Pittsford, New York

Wharton Esherick

Wharton Esherick

Spiral Staircase from the Michael Watson House, Pittsford, New York

Spiral Staircase from the Michael Watson House, Pittsford, New York

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Wharton Esherick

Spiral Staircase from the Michael Watson House, Pittsford, New York



monogrammed WE and dated MCMLXIII

126 in. (320 cm) high as pictured

86 in. (218.4 cm) diameter

Overall in very good condition. The wood surfaces present with irregularities, scattered stable hairlines and natural fissures throughout which are inherent to the wood selection and enhance the craftsmanship of the staircase. The wood surfaces throughout present with scattered light scratches, minor abrasions and small indentations particularly concentrated to the edges as consistent with age and gentle use. The block securing the 13th step presented with a fine breakage through the center which has recently been stabilized by a professional wood restorer, not visually distracting but which may benefit from further attention by a carpenter at the client’s discretion. Several steps with other scattered and localized evidence of sensitive restoration and inpainting, not visually distracting. The wood surfaces with some light surface soiling and occasional faint discolorations, not visually distracting. The central column with some more pronounced abrasions to the wood where the bolts secure each step, as is to be expected with age and use. Please note that the piece is offered together with two upper rail elements not illustrated in the catalogue photography which may be installed at the buyer’s discretion and extend the height of the staircase to approximately 184 in. (467.4 cm). Please contact the 20th Century Design department for additional photos and information.

In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby’s is merely a subjective qualified opinion.


Michael Watson, Pittsford, New York, commissioned directly from the artist, 1963
R & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2012
Architectural Forum 73, no. 1, July 1940, p. 36 (for a period photograph of a related example exhibited at the New York World's Fair, 1940)
Craft Horizons, vol. 24, no. 3, May-June 1964, p. 92 (for a related example)
"The New American Craftsman: First Generation," Craft Horizons, vol. 26, no. 3, June 1966, p. 18 (for a related example)
Lee Nordness, Objects: USA, New York, 1970, p. 252 (for a related example)
The Wharton Esherick Museum Studio and Collection, Paoli, PA, 1984, p. 10 (for a period photograph of a related example exhibited at the New York World's fair, 1940)
Michael A. Stone, Contemporary American Woodworkers, Salt Lake City, 1986, pp. 6-7 (for a related example in Wharton Esherick's studio, Paoli, PA)
Patricia Conway, Art for Everyday: The New Craft Movement, New York, 1990, p. 19 (for the above mentioned related example)
Wharton Esherick 1887-1970: American Woodworker, exh. cat., Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia, 1996, p. 9 (for a period photograph of the present lot illustrated, 1964)
Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Gerald W. R. Ward, and Kelly H. L'Ecuyer, The Maker's Hand: American Studio Furniture 1940-1990, Boston, 2003, p. 23 (for the above mentioned period photograph)
Paul Eisenhauer and Lynne Farrington, eds., Wharton Esherick and the Birth of the American Modern, exh. cat., University of Pennsylvania, Atglen, PA, 2010, pp. 38, 139, 144 and 159 (for period photographs of the staircase in Wharton Esherick's studio and exhibited at the New York World's Fair, 1940)
Mansfield Bascom, Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind, New York, 2010, front cover and pp. 114, 115, 168 (for a drawing and period photographs of related examples) and 238 (for period photographs of the present lot illustrated)
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1963
Wharton to Wendell, 
Modernism Museum Mount Dora, Mount Dora, Florida, October 6, 2013-September 2014
Wharton Esherick’s helical staircases are the DNA of studio furniture: a piece of source code, in which the whole subsequent trajectory of the field seems contained. It’s not an accident that when Wendell Castle, in the culminating years of his own long career, included a spiral staircase in his great installation artwork, A New Environment (2013, also in the Pinnacle Collection). He was looking back to his own beginnings. When he began exploring the intersection between furniture and sculpture, and looked around for recent precedents, there was really only one man standing there. “I'd never heard of anybody or knew of anybody who made furniture of a very unusual nature and actually made a living at it, and it was their life,” Castle said of Esherick. “And he'd made an environment for himself that was a sculpture, even. He practically lived in a sculpture.”1

He did indeed. And a great spiral staircase of red oak, which he’d made in 1930, stood at the heart of it. As many have noted, the stair – which remains the centerpiece of the Wharton Esherick Museum – captures the essence of the trees from which it was made, its torqued form literally branching out into cantilevered steps. Drawers inset at angles into the twisted central post describe a second spiral of voids, unseen within. It helped to make Esherick famous, when it was temporarily removed for display in a model room evoking a “Pennsylvania Hill House,” designed as a setting for his work by architect George Howe, at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair.

Over the course of his subsequent career, Esherick explored many and varied approaches to form, but curvature remained a constant. In 1959, Craft Horizons recorded a fragment of conversation he had with Louis Kahn, who contributed to the design of Esherick’s 1956 studio building. “You architects with your T squares and your triangles,” Esherick said during their exchange. “An artist wants curves, colors. Architecture must permit the chance of shadows through curves.”2 He was, as ever, expressing the all-importance of the experiential dimension. He stood for the triumph of subtlety over absolutism, evolution over stasis.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that Esherick would return to the spiral stair form, and see what more it could do. This iteration of the design, made when he was 76 years old, was part of his last major commission – the home of Michael and Nicola Watson, of Pittsford, just outside of Rochester (where Wendell Castle was based, as it happens).3 They, too, had the chance to live in a sculpture, immersed in the ever-widening spiral of Esherick’s creativity.

[1] Oral history interview with Wendell Castle, June 3 and December 12, 1981. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[2] Quoted in Gertrude Benson, “Wharton Esherick,” Craft Horizons 19/1 (January/February 1959), 37.

[3] Michael’s father, James Sibley Watson, Jr., was the publisher of The Dial, America’s leading journal of literary modernism – a connection to Esherick’s own avant garde milieu. The Pittsford home also incorporated tiles by their friend, the ceramist Frans Wildenhain.