Wendell Castle's Volumes

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February 6, 2013
Published to coincide with designer, artist, and visionary Wendell Castle's 80th birthday at the end of 2012, writer Alastair Gordon's biographical monograph of Castle's work is a juicy read, full of hyperbolic forms and insight into the studio of one idiosyncratic thinker. Gordon tells us that "I knew Wendell's work, vaguely, for quite a long time, but became increasingly interested in his biomorphic carved pieces when I was researching another book on psychedelic environments. I saw images of his amazing "Environment for Contemplation" (1969), a womb-like chamber carved from cherry that was part furniture, part sculpture, part architecture, and part hallucination." More on Alastair's journey to discover the man behind the myth; plus, a slideshow of notable Wendell Castle works.
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  Here, Castle's Chest of Drawers from 1966, so titled because of its resemblance to the human chest cavity. "I got to meet Castle a few years ago," explains Gordon, "and we talked about work from that period--the pieces that his original dealer Lee Nordness referred to as 'wandering forms.' Evan Snyderman of R20th Gallery in New York was representing his vintage work and through him I was able to look through hundreds of archival photos and publications about Wendell, but it was all quite scattered and ephemeral. So we started talking about a book."
    Here, Castle's Chest of Drawers from 1966, so titled because of its resemblance to the human chest cavity. "I got to meet Castle a few years ago," explains Gordon, "and we talked about work from that period--the pieces that his original dealer Lee Nordness referred to as 'wandering forms.' Evan Snyderman of R20th Gallery in New York was representing his vintage work and through him I was able to look through hundreds of archival photos and publications about Wendell, but it was all quite scattered and ephemeral. So we started talking about a book."
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  Castle in his Scottsville studio in the 1970s. Alastair Gordon reports, "Last year, I spent a rewarding few days at Wendell's studio outside of Rochester, New York, and that became the core narrative for the book--rediscovering all of this one-of-a-kind undulating, restless work that he'd carved meticulously by hand as well as the illuminating sketches that he'd kept in storage."
    Castle in his Scottsville studio in the 1970s. Alastair Gordon reports, "Last year, I spent a rewarding few days at Wendell's studio outside of Rochester, New York, and that became the core narrative for the book--rediscovering all of this one-of-a-kind undulating, restless work that he'd carved meticulously by hand as well as the illuminating sketches that he'd kept in storage."
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  An early piece created when he was a masters student at the University of Kansas, and one of Castle's first commissions, is more wall sculpture than furniture.
    An early piece created when he was a masters student at the University of Kansas, and one of Castle's first commissions, is more wall sculpture than furniture.
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  Seen here, a sinuous rosewood music rack from 1980 along with Castle's original sketches."Castle should be better known, but in fact he is pretty well known among certain design circles, museums, and collectors," says Gordon. "I think he might be much more famous if he'd died a tragically young death in some violent American fashion and limited his output."
    Seen here, a sinuous rosewood music rack from 1980 along with Castle's original sketches."Castle should be better known, but in fact he is pretty well known among certain design circles, museums, and collectors," says Gordon. "I think he might be much more famous if he'd died a tragically young death in some violent American fashion and limited his output."
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  Shown here is a stack laminated walnut coffee table from 1966. Castle, who is still working in 80th year, is, as Gordon describes, "an intuitive and slightly manic hands-on maker who would be completely lost if he sat around for too long thinking things out." As Castle himself said about hitting the milestone, “It’s weird. I have no idea what 80 feels like but I certainly do not feel old. I have all my hair and I still play a very good game of tennis three times a week, year-round, with guys 30 to 40 years younger than I am.”
    Shown here is a stack laminated walnut coffee table from 1966. Castle, who is still working in 80th year, is, as Gordon describes, "an intuitive and slightly manic hands-on maker who would be completely lost if he sat around for too long thinking things out." As Castle himself said about hitting the milestone, “It’s weird. I have no idea what 80 feels like but I certainly do not feel old. I have all my hair and I still play a very good game of tennis three times a week, year-round, with guys 30 to 40 years younger than I am.”
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  Douglas Baker, a Rochester-based graphic designer, commissioned Castle to create one of his furniture-as-architecture installations for Baker's dining room. What Castle did was nothing short of miraculous: an acrobatic feat of woodworking that flipped the laminated white-oak dining table on its head and suspended it from the ceiling, complete with conical lighting fixture. Sadly, the set-up no longer exists as it did in 1966 (pictured here).
    Douglas Baker, a Rochester-based graphic designer, commissioned Castle to create one of his furniture-as-architecture installations for Baker's dining room. What Castle did was nothing short of miraculous: an acrobatic feat of woodworking that flipped the laminated white-oak dining table on its head and suspended it from the ceiling, complete with conical lighting fixture. Sadly, the set-up no longer exists as it did in 1966 (pictured here).
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  So why is the timing right for a Castle renaissance? Gordon says, "There's a great deal of renewed interest in his work because the timing is right for rediscovering and embracing a homegrown American designer of his stature. Also consider the scale of his oeuvre." It progresses quite wildly from the wooden, organic forms of the 1960s into the similarly-amorphous but colorful plastic furniture of the 1970s. Here, Castle's influential Molar Settee from 1969. The Molar group was designed as a sculptural alternative to contract furniture and was soon snapped up for The Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.
    So why is the timing right for a Castle renaissance? Gordon says, "There's a great deal of renewed interest in his work because the timing is right for rediscovering and embracing a homegrown American designer of his stature. Also consider the scale of his oeuvre." It progresses quite wildly from the wooden, organic forms of the 1960s into the similarly-amorphous but colorful plastic furniture of the 1970s. Here, Castle's influential Molar Settee from 1969. The Molar group was designed as a sculptural alternative to contract furniture and was soon snapped up for The Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection.
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  Gordon points out that Castle's work from this era presaged the amorphous "blob" design of architects, designers, and artists of today who work with computer-generated forms. Above, the Three-Legged Floor Lamp from 1969, after a color restoration in 2004.
    Gordon points out that Castle's work from this era presaged the amorphous "blob" design of architects, designers, and artists of today who work with computer-generated forms. Above, the Three-Legged Floor Lamp from 1969, after a color restoration in 2004.
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  Here, a shot of the "Fantasy Furniture" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in early 1966. Though two of the four anniversary exhibitions lauding Castle's work have closed, you can view the craftsmanship of his so-called "wandering forms" at Connecticut's Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art through February 24.
    Here, a shot of the "Fantasy Furniture" exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in early 1966. Though two of the four anniversary exhibitions lauding Castle's work have closed, you can view the craftsmanship of his so-called "wandering forms" at Connecticut's Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art through February 24.
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  Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms—Works from 1959 to 1979 by Alastair Gordon, published by Gregory R. Miller & Co., is available now.
    Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms—Works from 1959 to 1979 by Alastair Gordon, published by Gregory R. Miller & Co., is available now.

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