Lot 144: Wendell Castle
Abilene rocking chair
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In 1966, envelope-pushing American furniture artist Wendell Castle (1932-2018) landed in the pages of Life magazine where he was quoted as saying "I have no special interest in form following function," in reference to the famous Louis Sullivan axiom. Castle's work continues to attest to this predisposition some six decades later. Often dubbed the "founding father" of the Art Furniture Movement and a strong proponent of the American Crafts Movement, Castle's elegant but bold sculptural furniture works engage biomorphic, organic forms that favor whimsy and grace over sheer functionality. Castle consistently defined his work as sculpture with a caveat, noting that it also "performs some useful function in addition to, I hope, being beautiful."
Born in Emporia, Kansas in 1932, Castle didn't set out to become a furniture designer. While pursuing formal training in industrial design and sculpture at the University of Kansas, two experiences set Castle on a path to developing the approach to furniture design for which he is now so widely known. First, as Castle began experimenting with uncommon industrial materials in his sculptural works he noted that some of these pieces "quite by accident ended up by looking a bit like strange pieces of furniture with seats at the wrong heights ... That idea interested me and I began to go in that direction." The second experience was when Castle stumbled upon the wooden works of American sculptor Wharton Esherick, who brought the principles of sculpture to bear on ordinary, utilitarian objects, such as chairs and tables. The discovery of Esherick's work would prove pivotal to Castle's career. "I didn't realize there were people who made furniture by hand," Castle has recollected of this crucial moment. "I didn't even know there was a field." This revelation would lead Castle to reconsider traditional philosophies defining craft and design from fine art, while altering the direction of his practice in one fell swoop.
Confounded by the seemingly arbitrary distinctions between art and design, Castle began to question the double standard applied to each of these classifications. "The general thought then was, if something had a function, it couldn't be fine art," Castle remarked. "That was a dilemma: I didn't want to give up on sculpture, because I felt it was a higher form of art. But I also didn't understand why furniture was so low on the totem pole." Not waiting for an answer as to why these two creative fields remained formally segregated, Castle began designing work that both confounded and delighted critics by blending the two in wholly unprecedented ways. "I could see after a brief industrial design job that no one was really interested in making things of sort of experimental or unusual nature," Castle recollected on one occasion. "The only way I could make what I wanted to make was to make it myself."
Crafted from superb, exotic hardwoods and industrial materials, including plastics, metals, and veneers, Castle's organic approach to furniture design lends his works an uncommonly biomorphic, sculptural quality. Equally organic is the philosophy that Castle takes with regard to his practice as a whole. "My vocabulary has always been organic; sometimes I think of it as actually growing from a seed/idea. Hence, my ideas actually grow into something. Each idea has other ideas which grow from it," the artist once explained.
With its lyrical lines and over-the-top, biomorphic form, Castle's superb Abilene (2008) chair is an exceptional example of the artist's signature work. True to form, this spectacular piece resists precise classification. It may neither be comfortably called a piece of furniture, nor as a sculpture. Abilene is at once classic and modern, paying homage to the traditional craftsmanship that influenced Castle's forms, while utilizing modern materials and language of industrial design.
Dailey, Meghan. "King Castle." Introspective Magazine, 1stDibs, 19 Mar. 2014.
Fison, Lizzie. "'Furniture Is Still a Relative Bargain' Compared to Art, Says Artist Wendell Castle." De Zeen, 5 May 2017.
Jow, Tiffany. "Wendell Castle: Agent of Change." Surface, 19 June 2017.
Leen, Nina. "The Old Crafts Find New Hands." Life, 29 July 1966, pp. 33-40.
"Wendell Castle." Edited by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Online.