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now considered synonymous with Castle’s work, at the beginning of his career this process was considered completely outdated – irrelevant, even.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.