“Art is omnifarious. It appropriates all forms and assimilates all materials. The results should be a paradox…”[i] -Wendell Castle, 2016
Wendell Castle (American, 1932-2018) has been described as a pioneer, a master craftsman, “a whimsical designer,” and the father of the American art-furniture movement.[ii] He, however, simply saw himself as an artist and his work, sculpture.[iii] No matter the tributes or titles, it is undeniable that Castle’s creations left a significant impact internationally. Over the course of his career, which spanned six decades, he “challenged the boundary between utility and fine art” and fused the disciplines of sculpture and furniture.[iv] Castle essentially went “where there was no path and [left] a trail” for other artists to follow.[v]
Utilizing a range of processes and materials such as stack laminated wood and molded plastic, Castle created furniture that is organic, sensuous, and otherworldly. His work reflects his lifelong desire “to push the limits of materials, question the constraints of craftsmanship, and defy the inclinations of the art and craft markets.”[vi]
The Kamm Teapot Foundation is fortunate to have a Castle chair called Aeolus in its collection. The work was originally featured in a 2010 exhibition called Rockin’ at Barry Friedman Ltd in New York.[vii] In this blog post we will take a closer look at Aeolus and explore Castle’s development as an artist.
During his youth Castle’s family bounced around living in numerous small Kansas towns.[viii] He struggled finding his place as a child which was not helped by his dyslexia. Castle has said, “I was not good at anything…The only exceptions were drawing and daydreaming.”[ix] Initially, Castle attended a small Methodist college called Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. During his second year, he took an art class as an elective. This was the first time he truly exceled at something. The teacher pulled Castle aside and encouraged him to transfer to another school with a better art program.
Castle took his teacher’s advice, much to his parents’ dismay, and enrolled at the University of Kansas[x]. He decided to focus on industrial design, a track that would ease his family’s concerns about future employment. However, before Castle could finish his bachelors, he was drafted into the army. He served two years at the end of the Korean War before returning to the University of Kansas to finish his degree.[xi] Castle realized after graduation that he did not want to pursue a career in industrial design. Instead, he came back his alma mater to obtain a Master of Fine Art in sculpture.[xii]
During graduate school, Castle had a breakthrough. While he was working on a cabinet for his apartment, a sculpture instructor asked why he was wasting his time on furniture. This discouraging conversation got Castle thinking about the divisions between fine art, craft, and design. “The general thought then was, if something had a function, it couldn’t be fine art.”[xiii] However, Castle questioned, “Why can’t furniture be art?”[xiv] In 1959, defying his instructor’s advice, he created a twisting branchlike work called Stool Sculpture. This stool received a great deal of attention which encouraged Castle to continue working in this manner. In a 2017 interview he said, “I wanted to be a sculptor. The day came that I decided to make furniture instead. What justified that in my mind was that I saw no difference — they should be treated the same.”[xv]
Rochester, New York
After graduate school, Castle lived in Brooklyn for a short period.[xvi] He had a limited studio space and primarily focused on making welded sculpture. However, a work called Scribe’s Stool, which he completed in graduate school, was included in the 1962 Young Americans exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in Manhattan.[xvii] Castle believes this is where Harold Brennan, the dean of fine arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), first saw his work and why he was offered a position to teach at the school.[xviii] Castle taught furniture at RIT from 1962-1969.[xix] However, he remained in the Rochester area making it his life-long home.[xx]
At RIT Castle had access to a well-furnished studio and he began experimenting with stack lamination. This technique, which would become his signature process, involved gluing blocks of wood together then carving the compiled form.[xxi] Castle “took [this process] to the next level” and it gave his work the volume he desired.[xxii] The resulting curvaceous forms reflect his admiration for artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró, and Henry Moore. Unlike other furniture makers who let the wood’s character influence the design, “[Castle]…thought of the wood like clay. He would make it do whatever he wanted.”[xxiii] In essence, the material “could be shaped…formed, and carved in ways limited only by [Castle’s] imagination.”[xxiv] Although he explored other materials and approaches such as molded plastic and gel-coated fiberglass, Castle would continue to utilize stack lamination throughout his career.
Castle used laminated bleached mahogany for the Kamm Collection’s Aeolus.[xxv] This large ovoid chair, which resembles a teapot, contains a looping handle-like shape that serves as a backrest and a spout-like projection that acts as a table. When Aeolus was created in 2010 for the Rockin’ exhibition, Castle said it was “grooved like a gourd of some type.”[xxvi] It was part of a series of amorphous works in the exhibition. These designs were placed on view with streamlined rockers. Castle liked the dichotomy of placing these heavy grounded forms next to their complete opposite.
Works, such as Aeolus, were first drawn with graphite on rag paper. Castle would create multiple sketches to “develop and see the ideas.”[xxvii] He embraced the imperfections in these drawings and for that reason he never relied on a computer. For Castle, “the purpose of the drawing is to generate ideas that become real things, not to make a beautiful drawing.”[xxviii] Once these drawings reached maturity, a model would be constructed. Castle said he “had to lay one brick on another and set thousands of ideas on paper before getting one authentic one dragged up from [his] gut.”[xxix]
In the Rockin’ exhibition catalogue Castle revealed a few of his thoughts on furniture design. For instance, in designing chairs, he says they must be “sittable” and the front must be “wider and more open” in order to be “welcoming.”[xxx] However, for Castle, the back of the chair was often “more interesting than the front.” He liked the fact that the back is less distinguishable and could prompt the question, “What is that?”[xxxi] In addition, Castle addressed functionality. While function is important, he acknowledged that his large heavy works are not the most practical. This is because works like Aeolus were created with a sculptor’s mindset. He carved the stack laminated wood block the way “a sculptor would do it.”[xxxii]
Castle’s work has often been labeled as woodworking. However, “[he] didn’t want to be one of the woodies.”[xxxiii] While he did explore the “aesthetic potential of wood,” Castle was never “truly committed to a material” like his contemporaries.[xxxiv] Instead, he was daring, took risks, and embraced ambiguity. Castle welcomed being an outsider and obeyed only his own instincts.[xxxv] This attitude served him well. His career has been immensely celebrated and his work is included in collections all over the world. When Castle died in 2018, he was credited with being “the most important postwar American furniture designer, by a long shot.”[xxxvi]
A Leap of Faith. Furniture Society Conference. Philadelphia, PA. 2016.
A Portrait of the Artist Wendell Castle. A film by his daughter Alison Castle. 23 November 2019.
Cheatle, Amy, Glenn Adamson, Lowery Stokes Sims, Ronald T. Labaco, Samantha De Tillo, and Steven j. Jackson. Wendell Castle: Remastered. Boston: Museum of Arts and Design and The Artist Book Foundation. 24 February 2016.
Eerdmans, Emily Evans. Wendell Castle: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1958-2012. New York: The Artist Book Foundation. 15 July 2016.
Freeman, Alex. Inside the Studio with Wendell Castle. 26 August 2016.
Oral History Interview with Wendell Castle. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 3 June, 13 & 15 August, 12 December 1981.
Oral History Interview with Wendell Castle. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 22-24 February 2012.
Johnson, Warren Eames, et al. Speaking of Furniture: Conversations with 14 American Masters. New York: Artist Book Foundation and Pritam & Eames Gallery, 2013.
Wendell Castle: A New Vocabulary. New York: Friedman Benda, 2019.
Wendell Castle, Rockin’. Barry Friedman Ltd., 2010.
Wendell Castle: The Creative Process (An Interview with Wendell Castle). (Interview conducted by Oscar Fitzgerald.) Popular Woodworking. 20 October 2016.
[i] Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ekb9w1jJlg (Accessed 14 September 2020).
[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/obituaries/wendell-castle-dies.html, 14 September 2020.
[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/obituaries/wendell-castle-dies.html, 16 September 2020.
[iv] https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/wendell-castle-agent-of-change/,17 September 2020.
[v]Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, 17 September 2020.
[vi] Laurie Manfra, “Shifting Shapes & Breaking the Rules,” American Craft, October/November 2008, 60.
[vii] Barry Friedman retired in March of 2013 and closed Barry Friedman Ltd. However, he is a partner in other galleries such as the Friedman Benda gallery.
[viii] Castle was born in Emporia, Kansas. He lived in Saffordville, Blue Rapids, Holten, and Coffeyville, Kansas growing up. When his father accepted a new position teaching or an administrative role, the family would move.
[ix] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/obituaries/wendell-castle-dies.html, 17 September 2020.
[x] The University of Kansas is in the city Lawrence.
[xi] The Korean War lasted from 1950-1953. Castle was drafted after one semester at University of Kansas. While in the army, Castle spent time in El Paso, Texas and a year in Germany. In Germany he was given the jobs of a messenger/clerk and later, the position of battalion artist. The latter allowed him to spend a great deal of time drawing. Castle received his BFA from the University of Kansas in 1958 which was paid for by the G.I Bill.
[xii] Castle received his MFA from the University of Kansas in 1961.
[xiii] https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/wendell-castle-agent-of-change/, 17 September 2020.
[xiv] https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/wendell-castle-agent-of-change/, 17 September 2020.
[xv] https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/remembering-wendell-castle/, 17 September 2020.
[xvi] It appears Castle lived in Brooklyn/New York City for about a year and a half.
[xvii] Castle made two Scribes Chairs, but only one was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts. The Museum of Contemporary Crafts changed its name to the American Craft Museum and then later to the Museum of Arts and Design.
[xviii] In 1950 the School for American Craftsmen moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. Castle replaced Danish furniture maker Tage Frid at RIT.
[xix] Castle taught at the State University of New York, Brockport from 1969-1980 and returned to RIT as an Artist in Residence in 1984. Brockport is located not far from Rochester.
[xx] Castle established a home and studio in Scottsville, New York which is approximately twenty minutes from Rochester.
[xxi] Castle was first introduced to stack lamination in his youth. He saw an article about the process in his father’s how-to-do-it magazine. The article described how to use stack lamination to make a duck decoy.
[xxii] https://www.1stdibs.com/introspective-magazine/wendell-castle/, 21 September 2020.
[xxiii] https://www.artforum.com/interviews/wendell-castle-on-life-art-and-furniture-36892, 21 September 2020.
[xxiv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/obituaries/wendell-castle-dies.html, 21 September 2020.
[xxv] In Greek mythology Aeolus was the keeper of the winds and king of the island of Aeoli.
[xxvi] Wendell Castle, Rockin’, Barry Friedman Ltd., 2010, 77.
[xxvii] http://www.crash.fr/wendell-castle-interview/, 21 September 2020.
[xxviii] Manfra, 66.
[xxix] Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, 22 September 2020.
[xxx] Rockin’, 77.
[xxxi] Rockin’, 78.
[xxxii] Rockin’, 78.
[xxxiii] Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, 24 September 2020.
[xxxiv] Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, 24 September 2020.
[xxxv] Furniture Society Conference (2016), A Leap of Faith, 24 September 2020.
[xxxvi] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/obituaries/wendell-castle-dies.html, 24 September 2020.