Wendell Castle’s Reaper is a bold work which encompasses all the brilliance of a vital and prolific career. Though it was created in the sixth decade of Castle’s artistic production, Reaper does not give the impression of a retrospectively-inclined artefact, but rather asserts the living and breathing nature of Castle’s thriving, unified oeuvre.
The sleek aesthetic of modern automobile design has been cited as providing inspiration for Castle’s recent work, and this concept certainly resonates when considering Reaper. The exquisite harmony and bold curvilinear form of the work precede its status as a functional rocking chair. It does not merely occupy space, but rather asserts itself as a sculptural triumph, defining the very space around it. The form of the chair is animated, implying movement in an almost futurist, animalistic sense which also recalls the pod-like forms of a number of Castle’s other well-known works, such as the Sizzle series.
The emergence of Wendell Castle onto the American 1950s studio craft scene marked the inception of a ground-breaking career, one which, for half a century, progressed through that vital evolutionary process of self-criticism, meditation, and innovation before finally coming full circle and returning to the core tenets of his early work. In its sculptural / functional hybridism, Reaper articulates the complexity of the dialogue which Castle has facilitated through his years-long navigation of different art forms: i.e. sculpture / design / furniture, and succeeds in marrying together something essential of each of these aspects in a synthesis of traditional craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology.
One of the most instantly-recognizable aspects of Castle’s work as characterized by Reaper relates to his use of the stack-laminate technique. Though now considered synonymous with Castle’s work, at the beginning of his career this process was considered completely outdated – irrelevant, even. His revival of this technique was innovative, to say the least.
Wendell Castle in his studio (Photograph courtesy of Wendell Castle, Inc.
Dating back to the 19th century, the technique of stack lamination involves gluing together a number of wood stacks to build up a moulded form and eventually work towards the realisation of an agile, amorphous construction. Castle’s initial encounter with this technique was as a teenager, when he apparently came across a magazine article instructing on the use of stack-laminate to create a “decoy duck”. Working in the early stages of his career in alignment with the traditional methods necessitated by stack-lamination, he would project a drawn image of his form onto the wall, before envisaging the necessary differentiations in wood bands and translating them into hand-drawn templates. From these, wood sheets would be cut, glued and stacked together to a form which could be manipulated by hand. This process has now been adapted by Castle to empower the efficiency and accuracy of production through incorporating 3D scanning and modelling. The technologically-based stack-laminate process comprises the 3D scanning of an original small foam model. From this model, cross-sections are determined and printed out to scale as templates. After being constructed by hand, a milling robot contributes to the final finishing process.
The significance of Castle’s return to this technique in recent years in works such as Reaper is twofold: not only was he opting to re-interpret a technique which had characterized much of his early work, but he was also choosing to re-reinterpret a 19th century process by way of digital construction. In electing to marry modern advancements and artistic developments with the traditional technique which gave distinction to his early work, Castle has imbued Reaper with a sense of timelessness. In light of this, the rocker should be read as echoing not just a single moment in the trajectory of his artistic production, but rather the totality of Castle’s oeuvre, the underpinning presence and force of which propels this rocker through to the living moment, and instills it with a weighty sense of both immediacy and immortality. It is equally important to note the modular and plastic-liberation enabled by the use of stack-lamination: it may even be considered somewhat ironic that this technique, conceived in Castle’s mind in the context of the almost-humorously functional (and banal) production of decoy ducks, eventually served as a means with which to elevate the status and existence of the furniture form beyond the realm of the purely functional. The fact of Castle’s engagement with stack lamination is of further note when considering that Reaper has had something of an ecological circularity imposed through the construction of complex living forms from wood, which could never be achieved without such adept manipulation of his raw material.
By virtue of the stack-laminate technique, Castle imbued Reaper with the essence of sculptural form, in a way which was free from the constraints of a single, material block of wood. In this sense he has afforded his medium a certain immortality, one in which it exists in a conceptual freedom, ready to conform to the aesthetic whims of the designer as he channels new ideas of modern sleekness and form. In this context, it is not difficult to understand Castle’s reputation as one of the foremost designers of the American studio craft movement – the moment at which designers asserted their ability to not only design, but to physically conceive and create their objects. As a creator of furniture, Castle mastered his material and subjected it to his own creative process in the same way a sculptor would do so. The rigidity of wood is herein undermined; its flaws and limitations wholly mitigated. Reaper is a truly triumphant reflection of this material subjugation on Castle’s part. Moreover, through demonstrating the viability and steadfast adaptability of his signature technique within the ever-shifting landscape of production, Castle ensured that the technological differentiation in process over the decades did not translate to a creative shortfall. Reaper is a triumph of modern sculpture and design which has been immortalised through a realisation of those essential creative processes of Castle’s in a modern context.
The breadth of Castle’s career was addressed in the recent exhibition held at the New York Museum of Art and Design, Wendell Castle Remastered. Reaper has been celebrated as the most splendid of Castle’s forms from this period, and was featured in the Kansas Museum of Art and Craft’s 2013 exhibition Wendell Castle: Forms within Forms.
My furniture goes against the grain of 20th century design. I have no special interest in form following function. I want to be inventive and playful, to produce furniture to make life an adventure.
Wendell Castle 1932–2018
Wendell Castle is renowned for elevating craft furniture to fine art through a synthesis of imaginative organic forms, innovative techniques and splendid craftsmanship.
Born in Emporia, Kansas in 1932, Castle was a gifted child who loved to draw. He received his formal training in the arts at the University of Kansas, where he graduated in 1961 with a B.F.A. in Industrial Design and a M.F.A. in Sculpture. In 1962, Castle moved to New York to teach furniture design at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen (SAC). He worked there until 1969 and played a critical role in establishing SAC as one of the preeminent furniture programs in the country.
It was during his sculptural studies at the University of Kansas that Castle’s design vocabulary began to take shape. A creative disagreement with a professor made the artist ponder whether he could make a piece of functional furniture that would be accepted as art. This challenge inspired him to create Stool Sculpture, his first work to blend form and function. Castle entered the piece in a juried art show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1960 without mentioning that it was functional. It was accepted and exhibited as sculpture, establishing a “proof of concept” for Castle’s budding design philosophy. This particular piece of furniture cum art has since been included in six major exhibitions of craft furniture.
While teaching in Rochester in the 1960s, Castle began to develop the stack lamination technique utilized in many of his most famous works. The process of stacking and adhering multiple layers of wood, then refining the mass with a chainsaw and chisel, freed Castle from the limitations of shape and scale in a single block of wood. It allowed him to create large-scale pieces that again reshaped the possibilities of what furniture could be.
In 1967, Castle befriended New York City art dealer and gallery owner Lee Nordness. Nordness, with the financial backing of Samuel Johnson (patriarch of the Johnson Wax Co.), curated a touring exhibition of American craft titled Objects: USA. This seminal 1968 exhibition featured 300+ works—Castle’s among them—and traveled to twenty U.S. cities and ten in Europe. It was the first time a furniture maker occupied the exclusive galleries and showrooms of the New York City art scene, and it helped establish Castle as the leading American maker of craft furniture. Prestigious clients clamored for his designs. Steinway & Sons commissioned five pianos, starting with the opulently designed, commemorative 500,000th Steinway Piano in 1988.
Castle never ceased developing, inventing and inspiring throughout his six decade career. He held several academic appointments including opening his own school, the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville, New York (1980-1988). He also received numerous honors including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts on three separate occasions, the Visionaries of the American Craft Movement by the American Craft Museum (1994), an Outstanding Achievement Award from the National Association of Schools of Arts and Design, Los Angeles (2007) and a Lifetime of Achievement Award from the Brooklyn Museum (also 2007). And today, the art furniture of Wendell Castle can be found in the permanent collections of many prestigious museums including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and The Art Institute of Chicago to name only a few.
Wendell Castle consistently confronted the traditional limits of functional design with ingenuity and craftsmanship. Glenn Adamson, former Director of New York’s Museum of Art and Design, puts it simply and directly, “Wendell is the most important postwar American furniture designer by a long shot.”
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