The Rugged, Refined Individualism of Wendell Castle

Wendell Castle, a most distinguished and stylish artist-craftsman

This month, Wendell Castle, one of America’s most distinguished artist-craftsmen, celebrated his 80th birthday. Throughout a 50-year-long career, Castle forged a highly distinctive path, merging the aims of craft, design and fine art to bring forth forms entirely of his own vision. It is this spirit of individualism that stands out as the most consistent hallmark of his boundary-defying furniture-sculpture.

Jewelry box in stack-laminated walnut with suede interior. Designed and made by Wendell Castle, Rochester, New York, 1973.

Castle was born in 1932 to middleclass parents in Kansas. After graduating from high school in 1951, he ignored his own creative proclivities and abided his parents’ wishes by studying practical subjects like engineering and business. Despite the pressure to conform to familial and societal expectations, over the course of the 1950s Castle gradually began to heed the call to become an artist, though he resolved to do so on his own terms.

He switched schools and coursework, ending up in the art department of the University of Kansas studying industrial design. Upon graduating, he was offered an assistantship in the sculpture department. He was attracted to the field of sculpture because of its privileged status among the arts as well as its focus on form making; but his most successful work during these early years consistently tended toward furniture. As he wrestled with his conflicting interests in both arenas, he followed new developments in the arts closely, particularly the increasing interest in studio-craft, the surging popularity of organic design, and the triumph of formal abstraction in painting and sculpture. Yet he always endeavored to try something different, something that wasn’t already being done by others.

"Pinkie" floor lamp in custom pink auto body paint on gel-coated fiberglass-reinforced plastic with a single bulb. Series designed by Wendell Castle, 1969/09.

Castle found his primary inspiration in the work of pioneering artist-craftsman Wharton Esherick, whom he visited at home during a road-trip to the northeast. Esherick presented Castle with an attractive model, earning a living while creating work that was outside of mainstream production. Determined to professionalize his creative ambitions, Castle moved to New York City in 1961 and soon after landed a teaching position at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he began in earnest to develop a synthesis of furniture and sculpture.

"Kangaroo" chair in hand-carved walnut and slung leather. Designed and made by Wendell Castle, Rochester, New York, 1962.

With relatively high-end resources available to him in Rochester, Castle began to experiment with stacked lamination, the process that would become his signature approach. This technique involves gluing together multiple timbers into large, monolithic blocks, which he could then carve into highly organic dimensional objects. Stacked-lamination allowed Castle to overcome the restrictions imposed by natural solid wood, which is too wet and too brittle for the sculpted shapes he was after. It gave him the freedom to work at any scale and to create forms limited only by his imagination. He immediately began producing true hybrids of sculpture and furniture, achieving his unique blend of functionalism and formal expression.

"Sluggo" floor lamp in blue metallic auto body paint on gel-coated fiberglass-reinforced plastic with acrylic base. Series designed by Wendell Castle, 1969/09.

A coffee table that Castle produced for a private residence in New York City in 1966, which will be exhibited by R20th Century next month at Design Miami, offers a paradigmatic example of Castle’s early work in stacked lamination. Comprising numerous walnut planks laminated into a unified block, this furniture-sculpture object was shaped with a pneumatic chisel, meticulously sanded down by hand and then treated with oil to exploit the inherent beauty of the wood grain. The form is reminiscent of a plant or bone structure, bearing a quality that is at once natural and otherworldly while remaining fully functional as a coffee table. At the time it was made, no other furniture maker was working in this technique or in general with such a sculptural approach; from the start it was unclear whether Castle’s work should be classified as craft, design or art.

Wendell Castle's sculptured coffee table will be on view at Design Miami/ 2012.

Over the ensuing decades, Castle would continue to experiment with materials, including forays into plastics and bronze, constantly raising his own expectations of quality and craftsmanship. His work has continued to hold a singular position between creative disciplines, all the while garnering awards and support from a variety of prestigious organizations, including the American Craft Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation. His work is included in the permanent collections of museums including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Arts and Design, Smithsonian’s American Art Museum, the Art Institute Chicago, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Detroit Art Institute. Currently the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut is presenting a retrospective of Castle’s work, curated by R20th Century’s Evan Snyderman.

-Wava Carpenter

Photographs courtesy of Sherry Griffin.

Categories / furniture, R20th Century, Wendell Castle