The Art of Design
The work of Wendell Castle defies simple classification. It is Sculptural Design. It is Functional Art. It is the product of a distinct artistic vision and experimental disposition paired with excellent craftsmanship. From the onset, Castle’s work has straddled the fields of both art and design. It was in 1959–1960, when he was still in school, that Castle began exploring and creating artworks with utilitarian purpose. Some of his earliest sculptures could be inverted to function as a table and two works in particular, Stool Sculpture (1959) and Scribe’s Stool (1960), blurred the boundaries and helped define the trajectory for his career. Though, it would be a few years until his signature aesthetic would begin to take shape.
By the early-1960s Castle was exploring volume and creating biomorphic and organic-shaped forms that doubled as sofas, tables or chests, out of stack laminated woods. In 2011 Castle recalled, “Around 1963 it was clear to me that if I continued with sculpture I’d have a tough row to hoe, but if I went into furniture there was no competition. If I could make furniture that was the same as sculpture, that had the same kind of qualities, then I wouldn’t be working at some lesser activity and the field was wide open. It was like when they opened up the Wild West and you could have as much land as you could put a fence around. I really felt that way and I worked like crazy after that because I wanted to establish this vocabulary as mine.”
If I could make furniture that was the same as sculpture, that had the same kind of qualities, then I wouldn’t be working at some lesser activity and the field was wide open.
The use of stack laminate allowed Castle greater flexibility and creativity in form and he worked with the material to create a body of work dominated by bold, curvaceous and voluminous designs. The table offered here is an example of his earliest work made using this innovative woodworking technique. One end of the table features an elegant but simple flat surface while the other features a beautifully carved and substantial block of walnut with sinuous appendages made of stack laminate. Like some of his earlier sculptures, this table can be inverted and used with either end as the tabletop or base, the graceful arms reminiscent of organic plant matter—blades of grass reaching for the sun and sky or roots stretching towards the soil and water.
Organic and free-form shapes would continue to dominate Castle’s oeuvre but by the end of the 1960s he was creating works in plastic, a material that would allow him to reinvent himself as he explored methods of mass production and introduced color into his pieces. The 1970s became the 1980s and then the 1990s and Castle’s production would take a post-modernist turn with his carved works featuring fantastic forms and colorful inlay while remaining true to his particular vision and design vernacular.
In recent years, Castle has returned to stack laminate and reinterpreting a technique he has fully mastered. Sound Footing, a table made in 2011 using stacked and carved, ebonized ash laminate, features three subtly arched legs that gracefully form gentle peaks above a sensually curved tabletop. The sculptural form revealing the sensibility of an aesthetic matured with time and experience and of a craft that has fully become one with art.
Wood, I realized, could be shaped and formed and carved in ways limited now only by my imagination!