|By Carole Deutsch
Wendell Castle (American, born 1932) has often been called the father of the 20th Century Modern art furniture movement. He has received countless commendations for his numerous contributions as an innovator in the 20th Century Modern design arena. His work is in prestigious private collections and 50 museums around the world.
Castle’s prolific body of work, one-man shows, museum exhibitions, publications, achievement awards and accomplishments as a designer, sculptor and educator are immeasurable. The Rochester Institute of Technology reports that Castle was recently recognized as one of the world’s top 10 living designers.
Castle, who has worked in wood, plastic and bronze for more than 50 years, has an atypical approach to his work. “The excitement for me has been in doing things on the edge that are risky; and the minute people start liking it, I move on to something else,” he explained.
His designs are typified by artistic grace that is bold and exotic in presentation, often appearing in rare hardwoods, veneers, striking metals and plastics that riot with color. All of Castle’s work is thumb-printed by its characteristic refinement, fluidity and imaginative design.
In the exhibition catalogue for Fantasy Furniture, a display at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts of the American Craftsmen’s Council in New York from Jan. 21 to March 13, 1966, Castle said, “My furniture goes against the mainstream of 20th century design. I have no special interest in form following function. I try in my work to fulfill both the aesthetic and the practical purpose, but if one were to become dominant I would choose the aesthetic. To be inventive and playful and produce furniture which is a complement to nature, rather than in contrast to it, is my philosophy. My idea is not to reconstruct or stylize natural forms, but to produce a synthesis or metamorphosis of natural forms.”
One of Castle’s contributions to Modern design craftsmanship occurred in the early 1960s with his utilization and further development of a 19th century technique, known as stack-lamination, which set the course for an unprecedented way of constructing furniture. Stack-lamination is a multi-laying process that bonds various types of wood, such as oak, walnut and mahogany, together to form a unit that can then be sculpted into a biomorphic shape. This allows a wide range of design possibilities that would be unfeasible using traditional techniques, bringing the art of furniture making into the realm of sculpture.
Castle has taken this theme of furniture as sculpture to the limit in a number of his works, but the one that best exemplifies his genius is the Wendell Castle Vermillion Desk, 1965. The piece has been celebrated as a pinnacle work of art that epitomizes 20th Century Modern design. Castle said, “It’s the most important of my early works, and I used this format for only a brief period of time.”
He then moved on to redefining his work on another level. According to Castle, he challenged himself on several levels when designing the desk that is made of vermillion, also known as padauk, which is a difficult wood to handle due to its variations of hardness and the dust that has a tendency to be a respiratory irritant. “It’s nasty to work with,” Castle said.
The results, however, are stupendous as the exotic beauty of the wood exhibits unusual variations in color not commonly seen. King Solomon used vermillion to build columns in the 10th century B.C. The desk is Castle’s only major work using this choice of wood.
With all challenges faced and conquered, the finished product exhibits a stunning portrayal of graceful sweeping lines that defy the imagination. Made in a bombe shape on cabriole legs with a central clam shell writing surface, each element flows lithely, one to the other, in a singular continuous unbroken line. There are also no straight lines in the entire composition of the piece as one part flows curvilinearly to the next and then to the next.
The mechanical operation is not disguised but is so astutely executed that it appears almost invisible. The only hardware consists of two burnished brass escutcheon plates, fitted with an artistically designed twisted key bow, and side hinges that lift storage units to the left and right of the writing surface.
There are no handles, no square corners and no applied molding. An accompanying three-legged chair with an off-center splat, designed with the same fluidity, is an ideal counterpart to the desk.
The Vermillion Desk was created as an exhibition piece and was shown at a Rochester, N.Y. museum and featured in a show at the Chicago Renaissance Society. It was then sold to a graphic designer for use in his home, but except for the occasional thank you note it served less as a desk and more as a sculptural work of art and a central room statement.
From 1989-91 the Vermillion Desk was featured in a multi museum Wendell Castle 30-year retrospective tour that was organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts that toured Detroit, Wilmington, Richmond, Rochester and New York. The desk garnered much media attention and was regarded as the crown jewel of the event.
Since that time it went back into private use by the family. Due to the recent death of the original owner, the piece has resurfaced and will be offered for sale in the near future. According to Castle, the desk was remarkably well taken care of and has never been restored and remains untouched in its original condition.
Castle was born in Emporia, Kan. In 1958, he received a BFA from the University of Kansas in Industrial Design and an MFA in sculpture, graduating in 1961. He established a studio in Rochester, N.Y. where he taught at the School of American Craftsmen and also served as head of the woodworking department at the Rochester Institute of Technology. In 1980 he opened the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville, N.Y.
His upcoming one-man shows for this fall include Carpenter’s Workshop Gallery in Paris and the Allen Priebe Gallery, University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, both of which will showcase his new designs.
A late fall show at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Ga. will feature a collection of his early work in their exhibit, Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms: Works from 1959-1979. For more information on these shows visit www.wendellcastle.com.
The Vermillion Desk is featured in Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms: Works from 1959-1979 by Alastair Gordon and Evan Snyderman and Furniture by Wendell Castle by Davira S. Taragin, Nichols/Seloc, Joseph Giovannini.
For more information on the Vermillion Desk contact Lost City Arts at www2.lostcityarts.com.