Remembering Wendell Castle by Oliver M. Furth

A couple of years ago, I was invited to design a public installation in Beverly Hills. Intending to showcase the best in contemporary design, I brought together 50 living artists from five continents, all working between fine art and functional design–that nebulous space central to my own design practice that I’m most passionate about. In preparing for this presentation, I created a wish list of designers whose work I wanted to use, and at the top of my list was Wendell Castle.

Oliver M. Furth 's design at the 2016 Greystone Mansion Showcase featured the Abilene rocking chair by Wendell Castle.

 

Castle, who passed away in January of this year at the age of 85, was a highly regarded furniture artist often credited with being the father of the art furniture movement. My friend Glenn Adamson, a senior research scholar at Yale and one of our country’s most knowledgeable academics on the subject of design, says: “Wendell is the most important postwar American furniture designer, by a long shot.” Trained as an industrial designer and a sculptor, Castle enjoyed a long career dating back to 1958. For almost 60 years, he crafted sinuous, biomorphic tables, chairs, desks, clocks and beds in a variety of materials, most notably in stack-laminated wood. Forever curious, he utilized 3-D modeling and computer-guided lathes as well as the ordinary chainsaw. As the story goes, his first piece was a toolbox that he made for himself while getting his MFA in sculpture at the University of Kansas. Castle’s instructor questioned why he would waste valuable time making a functional object instead of focusing on artwork. Castle aked, “Why not do both at once?” and thus revealed his lifelong trajectory of reimagining furniture and objects at every level. Even today, this can be a tricky concept for some to accept, and I often think about that courageous response.

Many of us have read about and seen photographs of Castle’s designs. The extraordinary carved wood music stand he made in 1964 is widely acknowledged as one of the great works of 20th-century design, and currently there are Wendell Castle chairs and clocks included in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian. New York’s Museum of Arts and Design put on a major retrospective on Castle in 2015, which displayed pieces from many different eras and broke down his studio process; I went back several times to take in his oeuvre.

The first time I encountered his workmanship close up was about a decade ago. Friedman Benda Gallery (then Barry Friedman Ltd.) had put on a show, and it was a revelation, with whimsical, lyrical forms that blurred the boundary between serviceable furniture and fine art. There were several works in Castle’s signature carved stack-laminated wood, and also pieces in materials like stainless steel and fiberglass. His tables and chairs look unmistakably like anything else–futuristic but also revealing the handmade quality with respect for the history of craft. His forms stayed with me hauntingly.

For my own installation, I was honored to work with Castle and with Friedman Benda. We selected an extraordinary piece from that iconic show I first saw in 2008, the Abilene rocking chair, cast in stainless steel. This piece floated on a complementing steel floor. I have loved this chair from day one, but during my show, I got to know Castle even more intimately, visiting every day, often taking a seat myself. In spite of its hard surface, the chair is surprisingly intuitive and ergonomic. The thoughtful form is cast and then finished by hand, polished smooth with a reflective luster. It catches the light beautifully, casting its luminous glow for all to see.

I’ve had the pleasure of placing several creations by Wendell Castle in clients' homes over the years–many tables from his licensed Wendell Castle Collection, as well as some studio pieces. These works are always crowd-pleasers, exhibiting both strength and seduction. They’re sculptural, but not overtly intimidating–like a handsome movie star with a kind heart. We are living in an amazing time. Today many talented young multi-hyphenates are finding success working in both art and design. Artists, makers and designers are not tethered to one category or another, and all of us owe a debt to the road paved by Wendell Castle and his infamous toolbox. The world of collectable contemporary design is taken seriously on a global platform; that’s in large part due to the beautiful forms that exemplify Castle’s own ingenuity and bravery. I am grateful he did a great deal to push the dialogue in both design and fine art. - Oliver M. Furth

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