Wendell Castle: Serious Fun
By Elizabeth Licata

I always have one goal in mind and everything is going in that direction. I’ve been very interested in art furniture becoming sculpure and having it accepted on that level. I see no difference.
-Wendell Castle

Wendell Castle, Molar Chair, 1968.
Every year brings new reasons for Western New Yorkers to congratulate themselves on their fortunate placement, surrounded as they are by a myriad of fine art centers, great architecture, and unique craftspeople. Here’s another motive to rejoice in the cultural riches of our region: one of the most innovative and respected makers of art furniture in the world lives about sixty miles from Buffalo.

He’s also a really nice guy.

Since the 1960s, artist Wendell Castle has been a trailblazer in his field, challenging the established world of traditional wooden furniture and creating pieces notable for their humor, grace, conceptual meaning, and, of course, craftsmanship. Castle’s work is in museums everywhere, most notably the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, and the American Craft Museum. A 1989 book devoted to Castle’s furniture had to use about twenty densely-filled pages to document all the exhibitions featuring Castle works and all the articles critics have written about him—and now that’s over ten years out of date. Castle is a living legend and his designs have changed the world of art furniture forever.

Wendell Castle, Table with Gloves and Keys, 1981.
A cheerful eclecticism
But there is another aspect to Castle that makes him and his creations uniquely accessible to the average citizen. Unlike many artists who are reluctant to break away from a strictly defined “signature” style or who insist on rigid divides between notions of “art” and “craft,” Castle blithely refuses to define what he does as being just one or the other. He’s also quite open to going off in several aesthetic directions at once. I visited his spacious and elegant studio—there is a gallery, a conference room, and a reception area as well as the usual workspace—in Scottsville on a drizzly December morning, and was amazed by the range and diverse stylistic directions of this artist.

In one of the display galleries, there were several desks and tables, brightly painted—Castle could easily have made his mark in the abstract painting arena—as well as a series of ovoid wooden forms placed on especially constructed pedestals. The tables had been made during the late nineties, and were playful, sinuous, and expressive, with simple quoted phrases carved in their tops: “You’re Innocent When You Dream.” “You’re in the Money Now.”

The egg-shape forms are of more recent construction and contain little, light-heartedly impractical drawers. They sit on pedestals, made out of, in some cases, hundred-year-old structural beams—that in their turn were made from 400-year-old trees.

Wendell Castle, Chair with Sport Coat, 1978.
Then, there is another recent series that reminds us of Castle the illusionist. Starting in the seventies, the artist became known for a series of pieces that used wood to imitate the effects of a coat hanging on a chair, a pair of gloves on a desk, and most dramatically in 1985, a “linen” sheet draped over a clock. In these works, wood imitates cloth with uncanny eye-deceiving precision.

The new series consists of upside-down chair frames balanced on “pillows” made of wood. It is a pure, surrealist trompe l’oeil and, as such, has discarded all pretensions of functional furniture. These works are currently on view at Indigo Galleries in Boca Raton.

I asked Castle later about the many different styles of art furniture I saw in progress, and he explained that, although the work might look different, to him it was unified through a shared objective:

“I always have one goal in mind and everything is going in that direction. I’ve been very interested in art furniture becoming sculpture and having it accepted on that level. I see no difference.”

Finally, in the middle of a gallery stands a ghostly white reminder of how Castle first became famous. Reproductions of his 1968 fiberglass Molar Chair are now becoming available to interested consumers. This tooth-shaped chair—an icon of its era—is as symbolic of pop impudence as a Warhol soup can.

A collection for the rest of us
Castle stretches himself even further in providing a line of furniture that is meant to be used as furniture in the average—but still upscale, given the prices—home. You needn’t be an art collector to appreciate the concentrated elegance of these simple pieces. Ornamented only by subtle curves, rich finishes, and basic geometric progressions, they are all handmade. They are clearly destined for contemporary homes, where space, color, and light are more important than fussy decorations. Sold by a separate company, Icon Design, this furniture is known as the Wendell Castle Collection. Consumers can choose different woods and finishes, depending on their needs and taste.

Wendell Castle, Executive Desk No. 444, 1974.
A local—and treasured—resource
In spite of a professional career which includes sending work off to museum and gallery exhibitions on a monthly basis, managing the desires of a host of wealthy collectors, and executing special commissions for clients world-wide, Wendell Castle still makes himself available to younger artists. He has been Artist-in-Residence at the Rochester School of Technology’s School of American Crafts since 1984, and continues to lecture across the country on a regular basis. In his studio, he is soft-spoken, but not at all reticent to explain what he tries to do in his artwork and where he thinks he has succeeded or, occasionally, failed.

Born and educated in Kansas, Castle has become a transplanted Western New Yorker, deeply involved in the cultural life of the region. You need not travel far to see permanent reminders of Castle’s artistic impact. Large commissions in Rochester—Twist at Genesee Crossroads Park East—and in Toronto—Full Moon, a large, downtown clock sculpture—will hopefully soon be joined someday by a Buffalo commission.

Learn more about Wendell Castle at www.wendellcastle.com and www.wendellcastlecollection.com.

Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.

Victor Trabucco
Roycroft Masters


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