Crafting a Private Commission
Memories of Wendell
My husband and I had just married, and he was still in graduate school finishing up his PhD at CalTech in Pasadena, when we began collecting American craft, primarily ceramics and glass. We were also members of the American Craft Council and regular readers of their magazine, Craft Horizons. Sometime in the mid-1960s they published an article about Wendell Castle and his furniture; we were already aware of Sam Maloof and George Nakashima but had not yet discovered Wendell and were immediately intrigued by his work.
We moved east in the late 1960s and ended up settling in Rochester, New York, where my husband worked for DuPont. We built a new home and were sorely in need of furniture, especially for our dining room. Through the 60s we had continued to follow Wendell’s career with great interest and knew he was at the Rochester School for American Craftsman (RIT). We reached out to him about building our dining room furniture and set up a meeting at his home/studio in Scottsdale, NY. I remember that we arrived right on time but found no one home. After waiting for about an hour we were preparing to leave, thinking he had forgotten about our appointment, when we spotted Wendell riding down the street on his bicycle with a badminton racket sticking out of his back pocket. At that moment, my husband and I knew that this would be a lovely adventure with a very likable man.
Thus began a once-in-a-lifetime experience over the next six months of watching the design, construction, finishing, and installation of our sideboard, table, and chandelier by Wendell. We visited the studio almost every weekend to see his progress and visit with him and his wife, Nancy Jurs. Oftentimes our four-year-old son joined us and Wendell would take him around the studio to show him pieces under construction and explain the designs to him. I vividly remember him showing our son the niches, or “feelies,” on two opposing sides of the table and demonstrating to him how you could run your hands over them while sitting at the table. This is something that nearly every family member or guest had done during a dinner at our home. The base of the table was also a source of fascination and fun; our boys, grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews enjoyed climbing through the base as children. It developed into a rite of passage when they could no longer fit through it.
These three cherished works traveled with us to four different homes and have been host to countless happy memories with friends and family over the past forty-five years. I am delighted, as would have been my late husband, that they will be enjoyed by new owners for years to come.
Wood, I realized, could be shaped and formed and carved in ways limited now only by my imagination!
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, 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.
It was during his sculptural studies at the University of Kansas that 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 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 never ceased developing, inventing and inspiring throughout his six decade career. He held several academic appointments including opening his own school, the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville, New York (1980-1988). He also received numerous honors including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts on three separate occasions, the Visionaries of the American Craft Movement by the American Craft Museum (1994), an Outstanding Achievement Award from the National Association of Schools of Arts and Design, Los Angeles (2007) and a Lifetime of Achievement Award from the Brooklyn Museum (also 2007). And today, the art furniture of Wendell Castle can be found in the permanent collections of many prestigious museums including The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and The Art Institute of Chicago to name only a few.
Wendell Castle 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.”
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