Wendell Castle, the influential American furniture maker, turns 80 next month. While he’s still prolific—he just showed some curvaceous new chairs at the Maison & Objet fair in London last month—it’s Castle’s early work with wood and fiberglass during the Sixties and the Seventies that shaped the American studio furniture movement and, more recently, the organic forms of industrial designers like Karim Rashid and Marcel Wanders. Castle has experienced a bit of a renaissance in recent years among both contemporary design aficionados and collectors, and on Saturday the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum will open Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms—Works from 1959–1979, an overdue first survey of that important, formative early period.
“I was fortunate to have a strong beginning,” Castle says. A Kansas native, he graduated from the University of Kansas in 1961 with a MFA in sculpture. By then, he’d already begun making furniture—a pursuit his fine-arts instructors balked at, but Castle didn’t see the distinction. “I thought, ‘Gee, why is furniture a nasty word?” Castle recalls. He entered a chair that he’d carved out of wood into an art competition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, where it was accepted—a validation for Castle. He would continue to work along this divide between art and furniture-making for much of the rest of his long career, producing his handmade pieces in very limited editions, as an artist would. The recent collectors of Castle’s work are a devoted cult group, and while the relative rarity of his pieces certainly helps stoke those enthusiasms, it’s also because his early work was so far ahead of its time that only recently have the pieces from that period experienced such a strong revival of interest. Says Castle: “You wouldn’t know whether one of these was made yesterday or 40 years ago.”
Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms—Works from 1959–1979 runs from October 19 – February 20, 2013, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, CT.
RIDGEFIELD, CONN.- The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum announces Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms—Works from 1959–1979, the first major museum exhibition of the iconic American designer’s work in over twenty years, and the only one to focus exclusively on the period when he defined his inimitable style of ground-breaking sculptural furniture.
Curated by Evan Snyderman and Alyson Baker and designed by Cooper Joseph Studio, the exhibition will open to the public on Saturday, October 20, 2012, and remain on view through February 20, 2013. It will coincide with Castle’s eightieth birthday and be accompanied by an illustrated monograph co-published by The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and Gregory R. Miller & Co., featuring texts by Alastair Gordon and Evan Snyderman and designed by Pandiscio Co.
The handmade pieces created by Wendell Castle in Rochester, New York, helped shape the American studio furniture movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and he remains one of the most important American furniture makers working today. Castle’s exploration of form and function blurred the boundaries between art, craft, and design, forever changing the way we look at furniture. Wandering Forms will survey his early works in wood and fiberglass, along with related archival materials. The exhibition will consist of more than 35 objects, including a variety of furniture forms from chairs to tables to lighting; approximately 50 drawings from Castle’s archives; and a selection of ephemera ranging from the artist’s oversized scrapbooks to video clips from his 1966 appearance on the popular TV program, To Tell the Truth.
Many items from renowned private collections, which have not been seen by the public in decades, will be presented alongside works from institutions such as the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Museum of Arts and Design, New York; Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York; and Racine Art Museum, Wisconsin.
Snyderman explains, “During this period, Wendell Castle produced some of the most dynamic work of his career. His artistic output was both prolific and exceptionally innovative, leaving an indelible imprint on the worlds of art and design. During this time, Castle was awarded three National Endowment for the Arts grants, secured a prestigious teaching position, and mounted over fifty exhibitions at major institutions.” Baker adds, “This survey provides a unique opportunity to highlight the convergence of artistic disciplines in Wendell Castle’s work. He has had a profound impact on generations of artists, designers, and artisans, and we are thrilled to present his work at The Aldrich in celebration of his contribution to twentieth century art and design.”
Wendell Castle: The iconic wood and fiberglass masterpieces of American designer/craftsman Wendell Castle (b. 1932) are recognized for superb craftsmanship and whimsically organic forms, while he is renowned for developing original techniques for shaping solid, stack-laminated wood. Castle was born in Kansas and received a BFA from the University of Kansas in Industrial Design and an MFA in sculpture, graduating in 1961. He moved to Rochester, New York, in 1962 to teach at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Craftsmen as an associate professor of furniture design and in the late 1960s established his studio in Scottsville, New York.
Castle’s numerous accolades include a 1994 “Visionaries of the American Craft Movement” award sponsored by the American Craft Museum and a 1997 Gold Medal from the American Craft Council. In 2007 he received the Modernism Lifetime Achievement Award from the Brooklyn Museum. He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, among others. His work is included in many museum collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Detroit Art Institute.
To celebrate his 80th birthday, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum debuts the first major exhibition on Wendell Castle in over twenty years. It is the only exhibition to focus exclusively on the period of his groundbreaking sculptural furniture. Castle forever changed the way furniture is viewed by his exploration of form and function, which frequently blurred the lines between art, craft and design.
Wendell Castle constructed all the pieces by hand in Rochester, New York and consequently helped shape the American studio furniture movement throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Wandering Forms focuses on his early works in wood and fiberglass and consists of more than thirty-five objects, including a variety of furniture forms; approximately fifty drawings from Castle’s personal archives; and a selection of material ranging from the designer’s scrapbooks to video clips.
Curated by Evan Snyderman of R 20th Century and Alyson Baker, the exhibition includes many items from renowned private collections, unseen by the public for decades, alongside works from the Smithsonian American Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design and the Racine Art Museum among others.
The exhibition, which opened to the public on October 20th, is accompanied by a new publication featuring commentary by Alistair Gordon and principal of R 20th Century Evan Synderman. Wendell Castle’s work from this period will also be exhibited at Design Miami/ this December at R 20th Century.
RIDGEFIELD, Conn.—In the late 1950s, when Wendell Castle was a graduate student in the sculpture department at the University of Kansas, he decided to build a plywood cabinet to store his art supplies. As he was working on the piece in the sculpture studio, a teacher approached him. “He made some derogatory comment,” Mr. Castle recalled, “something like, ‘You’re wasting your time making furniture. You should be making art.’ I began to wonder: why can’t furniture be art?”
That question propelled Mr. Castle toward his career of more than five decades as an award-winning sculptural furniture maker. His innovative creations have blurred the boundaries between art and craft and form and function, challenging traditional notions of what furniture should look like and how it should be used.
Now, some of the artist’s most significant early works — serpentine hand-carved tables and desks, bulbous plastic lamps, hybrid living environments — are on view in “Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms — Works from 1959-1979” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Curated by Evan Snyderman, co-founder of the TriBeCa-based design gallery R 20th Century, and Alyson Baker, the Aldrich’s executive director, the exhibition consists of 31 sculptural pieces as well as drawings and memorabilia, and occupies three galleries, each focusing on a particular body of work.
Even Wendell Castle aficionados are unlikely to have seen the rarely shown fiberglass-reinforced plastics in the museum’s Screening Room gallery. The brightly painted furnishings here represent a four-year period, from 1968 to 1972, when Mr. Castle’s experimentation went beyond woodworking. “Basically he became bored with everything being brown, and he wanted to add color,” Mr. Snyderman said.
The pieces are anthropomorphic forms, with names like “Fat Albert” and “Molar.” The chartreuse “Benny Floor Lamp” stands on two wavy-edged legs that meet to form an arch, its rim outlined in neon; the nearly six-foot-tall “Squiggle Floor Lamp” curls around itself like an elephant’s trunk. The shiny blue “Plastic Two-headed Table” stretches like taffy up from its base and out to the side, where it achieves a seemingly impossible balance.
“You can see him playing with taking the furniture out of the furniture,” Mr. Snyderman said. “They are functional objects, but they’re breaking into sculpture.”
The woodworked furnishings that Mr. Castle was making at this time straddle a similar line. Examples of the most iconic of those pieces are in the Project Gallery, where they are collected like a menagerie. There’s “Serpent Table,” which stretches from a rounded base topped by what could be a set of fins to a flattened tabletop that suggests a wide-beaked head.
Across the room is “Wall Table No. 16,” an S-shaped form made of afromosia wood that squats like a fat worm, with one end on the floor and the other on the wall; the actual table surface is a relatively tiny oval. “Here he’s taken the idea of a table to the extreme,” Mr. Snyderman said.
The horizontal lines visible in several of these pieces are evidence of stack lamination, a process that involves cutting boards into cross sections of the final form, gluing them together, and then finishing the edges. The method allowed Mr. Castle to build his more complex and substantial works.
One of the most famous of these is “Environment for Contemplation,” a nine-foot-long oak structure with a long tail trailing behind a two-eared hump that rises to about four feet. There is a door allowing entry into its womb-like interior, which is lined with flokati carpeting. “You could go inside and close the door, and the light on the top would turn on so people would know someone was in there thinking,” Mr. Snyderman said.
The seeds for explorations like these can be seen in the second-floor Balcony Gallery, which contains the show’s earliest furniture. The legs of “Coffee Table,” from 1958, meander beneath, up and over the tabletop, as if clutching it from above. “I like to question things,” Mr. Castle said, “like, “why do legs have to come out of the bottom?”
To illuminate Mr. Castle’s creative process, the curators selected 29 drawings from the thousands in Mr. Castle’s archives. “There are lots of sketches that were never realized,” Mr. Snyderman said. “You get a sense of how many ideas he was working with at any given moment.”
Mr. Castle, now a soft-spoken 80-year-old, equated the act of drawing to the act of thinking. “It’s where the ideas come from,” he said. “I draw these things many many times, because it helps me understand them.”
“Wandering Forms” is part of a wave of recognition for Mr. Castle that includes two overlapping gallery shows in Chelsea, an upcoming exhibition at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft and a presence at Design Miami. Next spring, the Artist Book Foundation will release a Wendell Castle catalogue raisonné documenting approximately 1,700 works.
In addition, this month Mr. Castle added the Arts and Cultural Council for Greater Rochester’s Lifetime Achievement award to his lengthy list of honors. He has lived in Rochester since 1962, when he began teaching furniture design at Rochester Institute of Technology; he is currently an artist-in-residence there. He is also working on a cast-iron installation commissioned by Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery for its Centennial Sculpture Park.
“To have all these pieces in one place has never happened before,” Mr. Snyderman said of the show. “This is the work that put Wendell Castle on the map, and the work that I think in 100 years people will be talking about as some of the most important work that was made in America at that time.”
“Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms — Works from 1959-1979” runs through Feb. 20, 2013, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn. For more information: aldrichart.org or (203) 438-4519.
Over the past five decades Wendell Castle has created furniture works with organic forms in wood, plastic, and metal. An exhibition of his most celebrated pieces is on view at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut through February 20, 2013, and another exhibition at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville runs November 29–February 4, 2013. Two concurrent gallery shows at Barry Friedman Ltd. and Friedman Benda in New York can also be visited until February 9. Here, Castle discusses some of the ideas underpinning his prolific works.
As told to Sondra Fein:
I HAD SOME SLIGHT INTEREST, but never really considered furniture as a career. My breakthrough came in graduate school. I was using plywood to make a box with drawers, and my sculpture instructor made a derogatory comment about how I was wasting my time making furniture. It prompted me to think: Why isn’t furniture art? So in 1959 I made Stool Sculpture and never mentioned to my instructor that it could also be a piece of furniture. To test my success—that one couldn’t tell the difference between furniture and sculpture—I entered it in a juried show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1960. It was accepted and exhibited as sculpture. Interestingly, I had the highest price of anything in the show.
Sculptors like Brancusi, Arp, Miró, Henry Moore, and architects like Gaudí influenced the vocabulary I began to use. I wanted to get volume into furniture, which typically didn’t really have volume. I was fortunate because I didn’t have any idea how to make furniture—I kind of invented a new technique that came from the sculpture world where you laminate, by gluing up blocks of wood, and then you carve. I didn’t really know how to make dovetail joints, how to veneer, or how to do parquetry. I didn’t know how to do any of these furniture things—but I knew how to do sculpture things.
When there were group exhibitions, I’d usually get the attention of the press—I was making something peculiar. We were the top people in the 1960s: Wharton Esherick (the elder statesman), Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, and Art Carpenter. But I was very different. Other furniture makers thought I was wasteful, that I was misusing wood. “You let the wood tell you what to do; you let the character of the wood influence the design.” I never felt it should. I thought of wood just like clay—I’d make it do whatever I wanted.
I wanted my work to be considered on an equal basis with fine arts. In the 1960s I thought, if I could just sell a table for $2000—since you could buy a piece of sculpture for $2000—then I’d be up there with the rest of the fine artists. I remember the day I sold a coffee table for $2000, and realized it didn’t mean anything. By virtue of its function, it wouldn’t ever be considered a work of art. I never thought I’d make nonfunctional furniture: I don’t make a chair that’s impossible to sit in or a cabinet impossible to get anything in. I believe in function, but it’s not the most important part. The form is most important. I like softer forms, some borrowing from nature, but I never wanted to do a literal figure; instead I wanted things to be bit more figurelike.
During the Pop period, color was very important. Initially, in 1968, I tried to paint wooden pieces, but that didn’t give me the surface quality I wanted, like automobile forms and surfaces. The only way to get that would be to go to fiberglass, and to keep the vocabulary simple. The first things I made were the Leotard Table in 1967 and the Molar Chair in 1968. George Beylerian asked me to expand the Molar line into an unlimited edition. But plastics are not pleasant to work with. In 1972, I went back to wood.
The works in the Aldrich show, which are from 1959–79, are valued highly on the secondary market. Right after, I moved to doing more trompe l’oeil wood pieces but realized that anyone can do that. No one else could do what I’m doing with the organic pieces. For instance, with Environment for Contemplation from 1969 or Library Sculpture from 1965—where two chairs hang on a treelike element with a lamp on top and a desk at the back—nobody’s made anything remotely like that. I own that vocabulary.
In my work today, there are real volumes. In December, at Friedman Benda, I’m going to have by far the biggest piece I’ve ever produced: forty-five feet long, and fifteen feet at the tallest part. My vocabulary is certainly organic still, using the same technique from the ’60s, bringing together wood and carving it by hand, but we’re joining the digital age: 3-D printing, laser cutting, a machining robot.
Design Miami/’s Design Pioneers talks continued with Wendell Castle – a true pioneer in furniture design who skirted the limits of functionality and art with objects that both served a purpose and were fundamentally sculptural. He spoke with Alastair Gordon, an art critic, curator and author of the book "Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms — Works from 1959–1979." The two had a highly detailed discussion about the early and definitive works by Castle, who also shared stories about how he came to the revolutionary concepts and methods for which he’s known.
How to describe the furniture and household objects produced by Castle, an 80-year-old American designer and craftsman? Organic would characterize some… Biomorphic would work for others… For others… only surreal will do.
TIME Magazine summed his work up when they wrote, “How to describe the furniture and household objects produced by Castle, an 80 year old American designer and craftsmen? Organic would characterize some Biomorphic would work for others.. For others .. only surreal will do.”
Celebrated as the father of the American studio furniture movement, Wendell Castle has been designing sculptural tables and seating as well as lighting and other functional objects for more than 50 years. Examples of his signature work in stack-laminated wood and fiberglass have become part of the permanent collections of major U.S. museums. In this Q&A with Designers & Books, Castle talks about the recent book of his furniture designs, Wandering Forms: Work from 1959–1979, with a text by Alistair Gordon (2012, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, in association with Gregory R. Miller & Co.), that accompanied an exhibition held at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, from October 2012 to February 2013.
Designers & Books: The photo on the cover of the book Wandering Forms shows you in a field, chainsaw cocked over your shoulder, with wood pieces behind you that you look to have subdued and conquered. Perhaps a bit like an adventurous and victorious safari hunter. Is that an accurate metaphor? Is it something of a struggle to get the materials to conform to what you want them to be?
Wendell Castle: The metaphor is pretty accurate, though I don't really feel it's a struggle.
D&B: During the period covered by Wandering Forms you worked in wood and also in “Technicolor gel-coated fiberglass.” In the introduction to the book Alistair Gordon says that for you your design work is all about “how it made you feel.” Do you find that very different materials—like wood and fiberglass—end up producing very different feelings for you?
WC: Yes, but the works also had a lot in common. The forms for fiberglass were as organic as those in wood, but gave an entirely different feel due to the colors and material.
D&B: You’re an admirer of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. One of the ideas that he popularized is that it takes 10,000 hours of hard practice to achieve greatness. How would you say that idea squares with your experience?
WC: He is absolutely correct, and I did my 10,000 before I was even on the right track.
D&B: Do you think of yourself as having a creative process that can be articulated? Have you found anything in the books on your list, or in others, that resonated with you in relation to how your design ideas come to you?
WC: To some extent, yes. I have found a lot that has helped me in being able to more clearly articulate these ideas. Vision in Motion was the required textbook for a class I was taking in design. Reading it had a life-changing impact on me.
D&B: You’ve also been interested in architecture. The endpapers in Wandering Forms show a helicopter flying with some sort of structure hanging below. What’s the story there?
WC: In 1970 I had been working on modular housing that might be dropped onto the site by helicopter. However, this was not the final design.
D&B: You have have a large collection of books—over 3,000 between your studio and home libraries, according to your book list introduction. What are your bookshelves like?
WC: My bookshelves are not artworks and truly serve a purely functional purpose. At my studio the shelves cover two entire walls, and hold everything from my design, architecture, and technical books. At home I keep my art books in the hall, and have two bedrooms that contain entire walls of books.
D&B: Do you have a favorite bookcase that you’ve designed?
WC: I haven't done much with bookcase design. One in oak from 1967 [see above] is a good one, though.
Prolific artist, lecturer, and furniture innovator Wendell Castle is having one of the busiest years of his life. At 80 years old come this November, Castle will exhibit work at a number of museums and his two New York City galleries, Barry Friedman and Friedman Benda. And his "Wandering Forms - Works from 1959-1979" just opened at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut, where it will remain on view through February 20, 2013. In recognition of this and in anticipation of "Castle mania" - an ambitious new series of work - we spoke with the artist to wish him a happy birthday and discover the inspired path he's traveled throughout his career.
INTERIOR DESIGN: At this milestone year, how do you perceive the evolution of your design aesthetic since the start of your career?
WENDELL CASTLE: In one sense, it hasn't changed a great deal, but the path has been a wandering one. There were lots of times when it got diverted into something or other that I decided I would back off of... I have a short attention span and have to move along to something else. As Snodgrass said, "If you're doing anything you know how to do, you're not doing anything."
ID: So can you pinpoint any specific change?
I think that in the early part of my career, I was quite on track. What I'm doing now has a lot of technique in common, as far as laminating wood goes, but I'm much better at it now. I can try new things. Equipment, technology, and the really good people helping me put me in a wonderful position to do a lot of things.
ID: Do you think much about which people will engage with your work when it is being created?
WC: Most of what I design is for myself, not thinking of a client. I do have a gallery that represents me, and they encourage me to be adventuresome and think big. I love to do that, and actually I'm now making the biggest piece I've ever done. It's a piece of furniture, 45 feet long by 15 feet tall. It exhibits at Friedman Benda in December.
ID: And are there any rules you try to live by, as an artist or simply as a person?
WC: I actually made up a poster that was called my "Twelve Adopted Rules of Thumb," and it's time for a new poster. Number Twelve, for example, is, "If you hit the bullseye every time, the target is too near." Then there's, "It's better to make mistakes than not make anything," and "Our questions determine our answers." They're guiding thoughts for me. I think of the story, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" [by Isaiah Berlin]. I very much want to be the fox. A fox will come up with new strategies, can live with ambiguity, can live with things that are not so understandable.
ID: What's the creative vibe like among those who work in your studio?
WC: Different people serve different functions, and have lots of talents. Some are very talented at carving, some do beautiful finishing work, some are great at sanding, welding, concrete work, or fiberglass. Working with Freidman and Benda has been great, as they take me to all the fairs... They've helped me find galleries in London and Paris. A lot of different talents.
ID: Speaking of galleries, you have a number of exhibitions coming up, including a pair that showcase new work in New York City.
WC: I'm quite proud of what's happening with the next two shows in New York. I'm making these oversized pieces of furniture, and just finished a wooden three-seater-the legs of which are legs off to the side and to the back, instead of underneath. The legs, however, have enough weight in them so it won't tip. There are also a number of combination piece: a desk and an armchair built together, also without legs underneath. but with a dramatic, sculptural Cantilever effect.
ID: Have you noticed people becoming more design savvy in recent years?
WC: The public at large is a large group, but in general, yes. The collector base has changed dramatically in the last ten years for me. Collectors who buy fine art now have interest in furniture. It's been great that an event like Art Basel is now connected with Design Miami, and buying a ticket to one gets you a ticket to both.
ID: Are there spaces or locales that have inspired you?
WC: I'd say Gaudi's work in Barcelona and Steiner's work in Germany have always been inspiring. I've been familiar with their work for a long time, and in some sense I've been influenced by it.
ID: And how about when you were young to your art form, were there artists you admired from those early days?
WC: I think that a large portion of Brancusi's work, and his philosophy, was an inspiration because he made furniture and didn't see it as a lesser activity. That was a difficult one for me to get over since I had studied sculpture. I diverted my attention to an activity that some would consider a "lesser activity," and I certainly got over that in my own mind.
ID: You frequently serve as a lecturer and professor [currently artist-in-residence at Rochester Institute of Technology]... Is Brancusi's design perspective one you offer to burgeoning talent?
WC: I lecture on that very point, on finding those artistic characteristics that lift a piece out of the "furniture" category. My current lecture is actually on "thinking about thinking." So much of design and art is about decision-making. People can draw things that look cute in their pads yet don't mean anything. It's about what you pick from your design pad and make.