Wendell Castle 1932 – 2018

 Wendell Castle passed away at his home in Scottsville, NY, on January 20, 2018. The following is excerpted with permission from Speaking of Furniture: Conversations with 14 American Masters, The Artist Book Foundation, New York, NY, 2014. Among other honors over his long career, Castle was one of the original recipients of The Furniture Society's Award of Distinction in 2001.

Wendell Castle has challenged the boundaries separating sculpture and furniture for nearly five decades and he is the most prominent figure in twentieth-century art furniture. Trained as a sculptor, he has treated furniture as a fine art medium and has established an international reputation in the process. New York Times art critic John Russell, writing in 1979, said Castle belonged to that “handful of outstanding artists who give character to a style and direction to the production of others.”

Born in Emporia, Kansas in 1932, Castle received a bachelor of fine arts in industrial design in 1958 from the University of Kansas, and a master of fine arts in sculpture from the same university in 1961. That year, Castle moved to New York and, after struggling to gain a foothold in the New York art world, accepted a teaching position at the School for American Craftsmen at Rochester Institute of Technology in 1963. He held that post until 1969. He also taught at the University of Kansas, 1959–1961, and at State University of New York at Brockport, 1969–1980. In 1980, he established The Wendell Castle Studio School in Scottsville, New York, a suburb of Rochester, which operated for eight years. In 1984, he was appointed Artist-in-Residence at RIT.

A strategic thinker, Castle’s work straddled the worlds of art, craft, and design, and this made him prominent but also polarizing. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he made biomorphic furniture carved from wood using his signature stack-lamination process, work that underscored his close ties to sculpture. He also experimented with materials such as fiberglass, Styrofoam, neon, and plastic. By the late 1970s, in a radical turn, Castle designed a series of trompe l’oeil works—pieces that resembled impeccably reproduced period furniture, but with realistically rendered objects—hats, gloves, keys—carved right onto the piece. This work led him, in another turnabout, to consider historical furniture and, together with his New York dealer, Alexander Milliken, he presented the “Fine Furniture” series in 1983, emulating the showmanship of court furniture that combined extraordinary period-derived forms, exotic materials, and superb traditional craftsmanship. Milliken aggressively promoted the work, raising published prices for studio furniture to new highs.

In 1989, The Detroit Institute of Art organized a Castle retrospective with a scholarly catalogue: Furniture by Wendell Castle, Joseph Giovannini, Davira Taragin, and Edward S. Cooke.2 Castle’s work is in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Art Institute of Chicago. His work is also in a number of public and private collections, including those of American Express, Johnson Wax, Forbes magazine, Philippe de Montebello, Lee Nordness, Jim Henson, and Martin Margulies.

Wendell Castle received a Visual Artists Fellowship grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988; the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement in 1988; a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1986; and, in 1979, an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute of Fine Arts in Baltimore. There are numerous publications on Castle’s work, including New Furniture: Trends and Traditions, by Peter Dormer; and The Fine Art of the Furniture Maker: Conversations with Wendell Castle, Artist, and Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, Curator, edited by Patricia Bayer.3 In 1991, the year of this interview, Castle’s work was featured in the first solo show at the newly opened Peter Joseph Gallery in New York. He and his wife, ceramist Nancy Jurs, have lived and maintained their studios in Scottsville since 1978.

Castle’s approach contrasts sharply with that of James Krenov, who described himself as a craftsman and spurned the fine art label. Krenov and Castle come first in this book because the interviews are arranged chronologically by the makers’ ages, but their primary position might also stand for the formative influence that their competing philosophies have exerted on those studio furniture makers who followed.

In this startlingly candid conversation, Castle assesses his career as an artist working in a furniture idiom—his failures and his triumphs. In his “After Words,” written as he approached his 80th birthday, still working in the Scottsville studio and still seeing his furniture drawing attention around the world, Castle can legitimately claim that he has succeeded on his own terms.

Concrete Chairs, 2009 (photo: Garry Geer)
Wendell Castle (photo: Wendell Castle Studio)