Wendell Castle: Shifting Shapes and Breaking Rules

Wendell Castle: Shifting Shapes and Breaking Rules


Wendell Castle in the spray booth of his Scottsville, New York, studio, with Black Widow chair, 2007, of polychromed fiberglass.

Ben Hoffmann

"I don't see myself as part of tradition, and I don't see myself as part of the activity in American furniture," Wendell Castle says, but as an artist and craftsperson, he explains, "You break new ground in different ways."

Over the last 45 years, Wendell Castle's furniture has been described many ways, with pithy newspaper and magazine headlines calling it "Haute Craft," "Deco-mid-Century Pop Postmodern," "Useful Furniture that also Satisfies the Imagination," and "Art You Can Trip Over." From the very beginning of his career in the mid-1960s, his work blurred the distinction between fine art and craft, challenging gallerists, collectors and furniture aficionados to question assumptions and break from convention. He still contends, "Making is the least important part, for me." Moreover, what has changed of late is the climate in which his work is presented. "This is the best it's ever been," he says. His original designs have become must-have objects for major art museums in the United States and abroad, such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Nordenfieldske Kunstindustriemuseet in Oslo, Norway, in the last five years, with works slated for acquisition in the next few months by the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. And his coveted objects from the mid to late 60s-specifically, his laminated woodwork and his fiberglass furniture, of which the latter was first presented as the Molar Collection in collaboration with George Belarian in 1964-are experiencing nothing less than a rebirth. "I have a great record for older work coming up on the second market," he admits, with his earliest pieces selling for upwards of $200,000 apiece.

Now in his mid-70s and honored to be deemed the grandfather of the art furniture movement, he wears his success well, spending much of his time in the studio developing new designs, reworking old ones and filling orders. "I don't see myself as part of tradition, and I don't see myself as part of the activity in American furniture," he says, but as an artist and craftsperson, he explains, "You break new ground in different ways." For him, it's been the result of a lifelong ambition to push the limits of materials, question the constraints of craftsmanship, and defy the inclinations of the art and craft markets. This July, American Craft spent the day with Castle at his studio in Scottsville, a small town on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, to reflect on the trajectory of his serendipitous and at times furtive career.

Currently you are represented by Friedman Benda and R 20th Century, both very high-end galleries in New York City. As an artist, you seem to rely on galleries to put effort and time into finding the right place for your kind of work. How have your relationships with gallerists and collectors changed over the years?
During the 80s and 90s, I didn't have a major gallery. Well, I did have galleries but they weren't powerful. I had shows, but no one gallery controlling things, tracking and protecting my work.

Protecting it how?
They make sure that nobody buys anything at a price that's not appropriate. For example, they keep someone from buying one of your pieces if they think they're buying it just to resell it. Or, if anything happens to go on the second market in auction, they're prepared to bid on it if it doesn't bring a good price.They're not willing to let one go cheap. You have a big picture going on if you have a gallery that can do it. It takes a gallery with resources, one that believes in what you're doing.

It sounds like they have a long-term strategy for getting pieces to increase in value over time.
Exactly. When they started handling me, I had a price history. The years when I was using miscellaneous galleries, it wasn't structured, and they didn't have the ability to increase prices at the rate I'd hoped for.

As an artist, how do you get to know what a price history is and how different forces affect it?
It would be a mistake to try to have a huge jump in your prices. Maybe you could get that price from somebody, but maybe you couldn't sustain it. Somehow, I had the idea from the very beginning that exhibiting was more important than selling. If you don't have many pieces, then you don't want to sell them because you won't have anything to send to exhibits. Coming from a fine arts background, it was expected that you wouldn't sell it, whereas I think people that study craft think they're going to sell. My pricing worked this way: if I put something out in a gallery, I didn't let it stay for too long. I'd take it back; when it went out again, the price would be higher. If something didn't sell, the price went up.

Have you held onto your work for long periods of time?
Not a long time. It all happened quickly for me. When I finished my graduate degree in sculpture, I moved to New York City.

That was in the 1960s?
Yes, and I was there for a little over a year and tried to find a gallery, but didn't. I might have found one if I was less picky, but I had enough resources to last for a while without selling anything, but as those resources were running out, I thought, "Gee, I ought to get a teaching job." Out of the blue, before I even looked-I was going to look for a job teaching sculpture -came an offer here in Rochester to teach furniture design. I had done three or four pieces of furniture, but they were kind of flukes. I didn't take it too seriously, but the dean had seen one and thought going sculptural would be an interesting direction. The department had been heavily Scandinavian; he wanted to move away from that. I thought I would come to Rochester for a year or two, get a good portfolio, get my feet on the ground and then get back to New York.

So you weren't willing to compromise. What were you looking for in a gallery? I wanted a sculpture gallery. Well, there weren't as many galleries then. Now the gallery scene is much more diverse. It seemed to be either an awful place that I didn't want to be in, or it was pretty fancy. Nothing in between. But then, after being here [in Rochester] for a little while and looking around and seeing what people were doing with furniture, I thought nobody was doing anything really interesting.

What kind of work were other furniture makers doing?
There were people making handmade furniture, and they were making it well, but it was based in tradition. I thought there ought to be a place for sculptural furniture. People who made furniture and one-offs, exhibiting it as art-nobody was doing that.

What led you to the idea of making art that also functions as furniture?
I think I saw an opportunity. I could see that to make it as a sculptor was a tough road. There were an awful lot of people doing that. Then I saw this other thing that nobody was doing, virtually nobody. I thought here is something I can try at no risk, because if it didn't work out, I could go back to making sculpture.

Your earliest furniture was built using a wood laminating technique that has grown in popularity over the last decade, with architects like Zaha Hadid doing similar sculptural work. When you were exploring methods in the 60s, what led you to this technique?
I remembered an article about how to build a duck, a decoy, from when I was a child. I never built a duck decoy, but it gave you the patterns and cross sections. While I was in college, I read an article in an art magazine about Leonard Baskin, who was a well-known sculptor in the late 50s and early 60s. It showed his step-by-step process. He would have an architectural workhouse glue huge blocks of wood. I think it was mahogany; they glued them to be 3-by-3-by-70 feet. Then he carved the figure out of that. I thought, if only he'd read the article about the duck and thought of it in cross section, he would have saved himself a ton of time and money. So I thought, if he's not going to do that, I will.

After working with wood laminating and carving for a short time, what was your breakthrough moment in terms of exhibiting and selling your work?
There were a bunch of them, but the first I remember because I hadn't been doing furniture for even two years-maybe one year. There used to be a show every three years in Italy called the Triennial; it was the big design show. That year, which was 1964, Jack Lenor Larsen was on the committee, and he knew what I was doing. He invited me to have a piece in that show, and it ended up being the Music Rack. It got huge amounts of publicity as a result of the show. It was in Time magazine and a dozen other publications. After working one year in the field, I had a piece that got famous. On the basis of that, I decided that making things in editions was a good idea. I made 12 of them. They sold for $300 each, and they sold well. Actually, a couple ended up in museum collections, and there is one on the market now for $250,000. That was an instant boost. One year later in 1965, there was a local exhibition sponsored by the Memorial Art Gallery here in town. I won the top prize, which was a one-man show and the gallery would buy one piece for their permanent collection. That was also a big success. A year later, I got my first one-man gallery show in New York.

So fast. You must have had to get to work very fast.
I did. I worked huge hours in those days. Then I got a gallery in New York, the Lee Nordness. People who know craft history know Lee Nordness. I was the first craftsperson that he'd ever run into. But I had this idea at the very beginning that it was the only place I wanted to show. I didn't want a craft gallery. I had pieces in craft galleries, but I wanted a one-man show in a painting and sculpture gallery. As a result of my exhibition, which was successful, he began to look at the field of crafts and he saw a huge opportunity to represent craftspeople.

So three big moments happened in the first three years, but how did your career progress into the 1970s?
Well, those moments began to spread out. The Nordness relationship went on for five or six years. I think my first exhibit with him was very interesting, but when I began to work with plastic in the late 1960s, almost every craft venue that had sold some of my work had no interest. He was the only one who exhibited any of that work in an art gallery setting.

Was it because plastic was not considered a crafted material?
I think so. I did plastic furniture only for three years, with George Belarian. Nordness got the one-off pieces, because they were made first, but then I began to think that working in fiberglass wasn't a good way to work. It was a stinky, nasty material.Then the idea was to just make the original and have editions made in a factory, and that was the right way to work; that's exactly what I still do. At the time, the fiberglass furniture didn't go over well in the craft world. I think, and maybe it's still true, that the craft world expects people to be dedicated to a material. People think of me as being dedicated to wood, but I'm not. People who work with wood are usually interested in its beauty. I didn't have much interest in wood's beauty; I had interest in how it would allow me to make three-dimensional forms.

It seems like you've always been more interested in the conceptual and in thinking three-dimensionally.
I'm more interested in designing, but I'm not happy with just a drawing. I like to see things realized. And that was the thing, backing way up now, before my degree in sculpture I got a degree in industrial design. After working briefly as an industrial designer and understanding the field, I thought, I can design this or that, but it may or may not get built. The designer is not the one that decides what gets built. Well, I wanted to be the one who decides and that led me to sculpture, but it also led to my working principle today. I design hundreds of thousands of things that are never built, but I make the decisions about which ones do get built.

Why do you think that furniture editions work now, but didn't work as well then?
It might have worked then if someone had marketed it right. The art audience understands editions. They've been buying prints forever; cast sculptures are always in editions. I think the craft collector didn't understand that.

Are you finding less of a difference between art and craft collectors now?
No, I think there's more of a difference. The art audience is much younger and much wealthier. I see the craft collectors as becoming elderly, and it makes me worry to some extent. I'm glad I'm not depending on them. I think it's not true of certain other fields, but in my field, you won't see any furniture being sold to them.

It's interesting that your furniture has migrated to the art and architecture world.
I am the only one who has done that in this country. I'm the only American you're going to see at art and design fairs like SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art) and Design Miami, except, of course, George Nakashima, but he's dead. There's a market for his work internationally, but no one else.

What about younger artists?
Well, I'd say there is an opportunity, but it's really a difficult one to take advantage of. You'd have to be extremely good and have something very unique going for you to succeed.