The Expressionist Form

Wendell Castle, Peter Joseph and Dr. Caligari

Started in 1984, as tastes and trends were rapidly changing, the Dr. Caligari works embody an experimental time and place within Wendell Castle’s career. The harmonious and sinuous lines that had dominated his stacked laminate pieces until then made way for the new visual vocabulary of the 1980s. 

Deeply imaginative and steeped in the rich tradition of craftsmanship, Castle captures the heightened drama of the 1920 horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in this series of unique works. With a radical aesthetic dominated by jagged edges and unusual surface decoration in contrasting color, Castle creates movement and expression in these otherwise fully functional forms. Gone are the subtleties of his early furniture designs, yet his reoccurring desire to redefine our understanding of furniture remains clear.

The present lot comprised of Dr. Caligari’s Mistresses desk and chair features another richly personal layer. The works were part of the bespoke designed office suite Castle created in 1990 for Peter Joseph. Joseph was one of Castle’s earliest champions and as a gallery founder, few had a more significant impact than Joseph on the appreciation of American Craft; at a time when many sought to dismiss radical designs, Joseph recognized avant-garde artists as visionaries organizing what would become known as landmark exhibitions for the field. Another work from Dr. Caligari’s office suite created for Peter Joseph resides in the permanent collection of the Modernism Museum in Mount Dora, Florida.

A designer doesn’t have to be a craftsman, but I think it is a good idea to control what you do...I do not think that craft really enters into the part that’s about designing, but it is essential to complete the design and to know how to arrive at the desired results.

Wendell Castle

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.”