david esterly portrait

In Praise of an Overlooked Genius: David Esterly, Architectural Sculptor

Christopher Wren and his contemporaries in Europe relied on a host of what would now be called “applied artists” in both designing and building their work. These were artisans—stucco workers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, and wood carvers—who commanded the admiration of what we would now call “fine artists”—sculptors, painters, musicians, and poets. There was, however, no distinction between these two types of artists in the 17th and 18th centuries. “Fine art” was an invention of capitalist elites following the French and American revolutions. 

One of Wren’s most important collaborators was Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721), a wood carver whose delicate limewood petals were said to flutter in the wind like real flowers. Gibbons designed the woodwork for St. Paul’s Cathedral, in association with Wren and others. He also carved the paneling and decorative woodwork at Wren’s additions to Hampton Court Palace. In England he is known as the greatest limewood carver in history, through Germans might quibble with that assessment.

It is thus ironic that an American, David Esterly, was hired to replicate and restore the famous Gibbons panels at Hampton Court Palace following the disastrous fire on March 31, 1986, that took a toll on the finest rooms designed by Wren. Raised in California, Esterly studied carving following a Ph.D. in English literature that had brought him to the United Kingdom. Once exposed to the miraculous limewood work of Gibbons, Esterly abandoned academia and endeavored to find a way to make similar masterpieces. No one expected him to succeed, let alone surpass, the work of such a master.

The most difficult property of wood for a carver to assess is its grain, both the direction and the density. Growth rings in wood are composed of strawlike groups of cells that run vertically up the tree in continuous strips. The grain of the wood follows the direction of these cellular straws. A woodcarver can be tormented by inconsistent grain, which is why limewood is so versatile. Most devilish is the fact that grain is sometimes hidden; even end grain does not tell the carver the whole story. This is why artisanal knowledge is required for mastery of woodcarving: the carver must “feel” the grain while cutting into the wood. In a book, Esterly recounts an instance when, during the carving of a stringlike stalk in a Gibbons restoration, he lost his sense of the grain and the stalk snapped under his chisel, a carver’s nightmare. Fortunately, there was a modern glue at hand that could correct the mistake.

“Musical Trophy,” 2004

Defying all expectations and surpassing the work of his collaborators at Hampton Court, Esterly created carvings that are so intricate, and so deeply undercut, that it is impossible for the layperson to understand the complexity of their making. This is because, even if drawings are composed to guide carvers in their work, an exigency such as a knot or a change in the grain can require a revision in the design. In this way, the artisan works in real time to adjust to the “give and take” that the material provides. The designer and the maker must be the same person.

When architects worked with Lee Lawrie (1877–1963), the American sculptor who carved masterpieces at Rockefeller Center and St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, they gave him wide latitude to design sculptures within the lines of an overall design that all approved. Similarly, David Esterly worked for most of his career as an architectural sculptor, providing mantelpieces, still lifes, and other wood carvings for buildings all over the world. Yet he is unknown to most of the contemporary art world, and barely known among architects, even in Britain and the U.S. Only after publishing two elegant books 15 years ago did he emerge as a figure in the cultural life of his home nation. One of his pieces is a tribute to the mind of Thomas Jefferson. 

His death this past June—at the age of 75, at his home near Utica, New York—was noted in the New York Times, but he remains esteemed only by connoisseurs of fine woodcarving. This is unfathomable, given the scope of his achievements and the genius behind his work.

Three-dimensional enrichment of walls, ceilings, doors, and other interior elements in buildings ceased to exist following the Modernist movement of the 1920s, though many of its founders espoused collaboration among artisans, artists, and architects. Even architects fond of wood as a material, such as Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto, and Peter Bohlin, did not allow figural sculpture to mar the purity of their interiors. The only contemporary recognition of wood sculpture comes through the Institute for Classical Architecture and Art in New York—but even there, Esterly has not yet been feted. It is as if the architectural community has slept during the career of one of the greatest architectural sculptors in history.

Esterly’s 2012 book.

I came to know David during the last two years of his life while researching a book on design and neuroscience, and he was a source of many ideas and images that will appear in it. I am convinced that one of the reasons he never made a significant impact was that he insisted on remaining a woodcarver, an artisan, an artist steeped in the traditions of his chosen craft. I myself carve wood and make furniture, so I could not help but enter the world that he described in his writings. How, I wondered, could our profession ignore Esterly while praising George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick among modern woodworkers? Here is what I surmised.

The artificial split between “vernacular” and “high art” architecture, and that between the “fine” arts and “artisanal” production, has left modern society with a meager, arid appreciation of many of the most sensual and culturally rich forms of art that gave our ancestors pleasure over the centuries. Moreover, antiques collecting and elite connoisseurship have moved inexorably from the popular arena to the lofty realm of museums and the 1 percent. Indeed, many of David’s patrons were among the elite collectors of art and decorative arts, because they could both afford and appreciate the quality of his work. And, of course, as a figural artist he could never be taken seriously by the increasingly “conceptual” artists and architects who are the darlings of museum curators and critics. 

If one examines even a few of his magnificent pieces, ranging from floral carvings to the most astounding tromp l’oeil fantasies and letter-rack collages, his inventiveness and intellectual depth are as astounding as the technical mastery he demonstrates when carving the most delicate and unusual objects. A cell phone, digital watch, or violin bow appear so lifelike that they hover in space as if in a painting. He can carve not only thin stalks but also lengths of rope and string. He manipulates our perception of depth, texture, and form so adroitly that we are completely captured in the illusions he creates. Not even Joseph Cornell or Marcel Duchamp achieved this awesome hold over the viewer. And he long ago surpassed Gibbons, his original artistic hero. 

Have we reached the point where one of the greatest artists of the past century is ignored, while the art market inflates prices for the work of Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons, and other conceptualists?

The tragedy of Esterly’s passing without notice is that a genius of such obvious cultural importance could be shrugged aside by those we respect as critics and cultural leaders. Have we reached the point where one of the greatest artists of the past century is ignored, while the art market inflates prices for the work of Damien Hurst, Jeff Koons, and other conceptualists? Sadly, neither the art world or the rarified realm of high-art architects and critics will ever acknowledge a mere artisan. Yet of course Koons and Hurst produce crudely made, tawdry pieces that mock the intelligence of patrons who pay for them. Their own artistry is so marginal that many sensible people will never take them seriously. Among architects, craft is so little appreciated that buildings such the Seattle Public Library or San Francisco Federal Building can fall apart a mere decade after construction and remain icons of their historical moment.

It is time that architects and designers, as well as historians of design, acknowledge their complete ignorance of artisanal literacy and their biases against masters of “the trades.” The profession must again ally itself with those who have mastered materials like wood, stone, fibers, metalwork, and a host of other crafting disciplines. If we look around, we will find that wonderful work is being done by artisans, and that including it in our designs is not only smart, but also enriching for us and our users. In architectural conservation/preservation, these material artisans are necessary for the repair of buildings, and indeed many forms of art. But architects denigrate those who merely “repair and restore” architecture as surely as they do the tradespeople who work with them. We must stop denying that we, too, are artisans, and join rather than shun our brethren. 

The death of this great artist could be a moment that forces us to rethink the relationship between design and craft. I think that David would expect that.

All photos courtesy of davidesterly.com.


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