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.

Stool, 1963. An early sculptural work that could be inverted to function as a seat.

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!

Wendell Castle

Wendell Castle

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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