Wendell Castle (1932-2018)
Father of the American Studio Furniture movement, 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, Wendell 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. To this day, he remains an artist-in-residence there.
It was during his sculptural studies at the University of Kansas that Wendell 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 more 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 has never ceased developing and inventing in his six decade career. He has 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.”
Wendell Castle’s work is in the permanent collections of over 45 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and can be also be seen in nearly 20 public and corporate installations nationwide. The secondary market for his work continues to be quite strong and it’s not uncommon for his more exceptional pieces to sell for six figures; exemplified by an important sculpted oak sleigh chair from 1963 sold at Rago in 2008 for $204,000.