Wendell Castle: The Art of Furniture
On the cusp of his 80s, Wendell Castle revels in the techniques that launched his career.
by Scott Gibson
From the November 2012 issue, a collection of features articles on woodworkers
It is a cool June morning, and a light northwest breeze is clearing out yesterday’s squalls over western New York State. By 9 a.m., Wendell Castle is in his studio, alone, working on a drawing of a chair. An ellipsoid leg takes shape as the pencil glides over the paper.
A first-time visitor to this spacious workroom would be hard-pressed not to stand at the door and gape. Worktables are crammed with urethane models of upcoming projects, tools, glue bottles, bits and pieces of projects. Near the center of the room, a 400-pound chunk of stack-laminated ash rests on a pair of sawhorses and awaits carving. Drawings are pinned to a corkboard on the wall. Against one wall is an immense shipbuilder’s band saw with a rotating head. Where do you look first? It’s as if Castle’s head had simply exploded, spilling ideas everywhere.
At the forefront of American furniture design for more than 40 years, Castle occupies a unique space bridging the gap between utility and fine art. On the day of my visit, five months before his 80th birthday, he is as deeply engaged in his work as he’s ever been, juggling commitments to multiple shows and galleries both in the United States and abroad. And he seems to be savoring all of it.
“I think there are three kinds of people,” he told a Furniture Society audience in 2008, “people who make things happen, people who watch things happen and people who wonder what happened. Let’s be the first kind.”
He certainly seems to have taken his own advice.
Preview “Woodworking Legends: An Interview with Wendell Castle” (filmed in Fall of 2016)
A Studio Running at Full-tilt
Castle’s studio is only one wing of a shingled building on a quiet residential street in Scottsville, N.Y. In no time, Castle, who is dressed in shorts and an orange polo shirt and looking ready for an all-day hike, is leading a tour of this 15,000-square-foot labyrinth of workspaces and offices.
He bought the building, a former grain mill, in 1968 and has added on over the years. For a number of years, Castle ran a woodworking school here. Now, it houses seven employees who are doing their best to stay on top of a busy production schedule. Works in progress are everywhere.
In one room, an assistant is cutting paper patterns that will become part of a stack-laminated piece. Nearby, another assistant is just finishing a glue-up and will shortly begin carving. We visit someone hand-sanding a mostly finished chair, a process he expects to take well into the following week. There is someone else finishing a series of tables in black aniline dye and nitrocellulose lacquer.
In a shop out back, repairs are underway on an old sculpture bound for an upcoming show. Castle stops to pull away a cloth covering a curvaceous metal chaise lounge perforated with hundreds of wiggly cutouts. It still needs work, but right now no one has any time to give it, and it will have to wait. In a corner of this workshop, he unveils a 1951 Nash Healey sports car, nearly restored but still in primer. The shop has made a windshield frame to replace the missing original.
There is the “hall of lathes” in a downstairs room that houses both metal and woodworking lathes, including a massive patternmaker’s lathe capable of handling an 8′-long workpiece. We pass a storage room stacked with sheets of veneer (“we’re not doing any veneer now”), and walk through a lobby where a beautifully veneered Brunswick billiard table sits in the center of the room (Castle says he has trouble finding people to play with him). Just outside under the porte cochère is Castle’s car, a white Porsche 911. “Turbo,” he says.
The studio and everything in it is woven completely into the fabric of Castle’s life. He typically works from 8:30 or 9 a.m. to 6 or 6:30 p.m., knocking off early two or three times a week for tennis. He’s in the studio on Saturdays, and often for a while on Sundays.
On this particular day, Castle is preparing for two shows that will run simultaneously in New York in the fall, one-man shows in Paris and Seoul, South Korea, and another at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn. He’s also working on a commission for the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester. Plus, there are commissions waiting from his gallery in Seoul. And he still teaches a course at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he is an artist in residence. Oh yes, and then there is the martini glass he’s designing for Corning.
It’s a schedule that would bring anyone to his knees. Any plans of slowing down? Contemplating retirement? “You stop working, you rust, somebody said that,” Castle replies. “No, I have no interest in that. What would I do? You’ve got to do something and I so enjoy what I do. I don’t want to go fishing or anything like that. I don’t even like to go on vacations.”
Castle, born in Kansas in 1932, earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial design in 1958 and a master’s degree in sculpture three years later, both from the University of Kansas. He moved to New York to try to make a career as a sculptor, but that didn’t develop as he’d hoped. Then, in 1961, he entered a chair in a competition at the American Craft Museum (now called the Museum of Arts and Design). The piece earned him an offer to teach at the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he became one half of a two-person department.
“You could count the pieces of furniture I had made at that point on one hand,” he says. “The only joint I knew to do was a dowel joint.”
But he brought a sculptor’s eye to the program and he had an idea for a new way of making furniture – one that would prove pivotal for his career. Instead of assembling furniture from pieces of wood and conventional joinery, Castle glued pieces of wood together into stack laminations and carved the finished pieces from these blanks. The laminations could be cut into shapes so that the rough contours of the piece were established before he ever picked up a carving tool. The technique saved time and materials over conventional carving, and it made possible sculptural shapes unobtainable with conventional furniture making techniques.
In a 2008 interview with Bebe Pritam Johnson, co-founder of the Pritam & Eames gallery, Castle claimed to have come by the idea in the 1930s in a handyman magazine belonging to his father. The article described how to make duck decoys by laminating layers of 3⁄4″ plywood. Although Castle never made a decoy, he tucked the idea away, and years later adapted it to making furniture.
“I thought of it differently than people who generally think about furniture, and had come from a historical way of thinking about it,” Castle says of his furniture making. “In a sense, it may have been by default for me that the laminating process was a process that was closer to being like sculpture because you could work with volumes. You don’t get volumes in traditional furniture.”
Castle also saw an opportunity: The handcrafted furniture movement was still in its infancy and no one else was designing furniture in quite the same way.
“I didn’t see much happening in the field, and I realized that if I made furniture I could probably be out in front in no time,” he says. “It was pretty clear to me early on that I could have a great success here. I didn’t see anybody doing anything remotely like what I’d do, so I saw the field as being absolutely open.”
In 1964, a music stand Castle designed was chosen for the Triennale di Milano, an important design exhibition in Italy. That won him a lot of attention, including coverage in Time and Life magazines. Many accolades have followed.
His early success was not only a sign of Castle’s design agility, his talent for taking conventional thinking about furniture and turning it on its ear, but also evidence of a shrewd acumen about his career.
“I had ambitions to be successful,” he says. “I always tried to put a goal there that I wanted to achieve, and I think I’ve had realistic goals. If you have unrealistic goals you’re not going to fulfill those and be disappointed. If you make realistic goals, when you achieve those goals you realize the standard wasn’t high enough, so you raise it a notch.”
Moving on to Other Styles
As revolutionary as Castle’s stack-lamination work seemed to be, it wasn’t enough to hold his attention indefinitely. The work that followed reflected a variety of different styles, each different from the last.
A trompe l’oeil series used detailed carving in wood to simulate other materials, most notably in Ghost Clock (shown on page 21), a tall clock that looks as if it’s draped in cloth. He worked in plastic, designed and made a series of clocks, cabinets that looked like starfish and a line of chairs that looked like molars. He was commissioned by Steinway to make a custom case for its 500,000th piano in 1987.
One of his most surprising turns was a fine-furniture period prompted by an introduction to the work of Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, an influential art deco designer.
Castle ran across a number of Ruhlmann’s elegantly detailed pieces in the basement of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they had been collecting dust since 1929. Some of them weren’t in great condition, but Castle was “super impressed” with the workmanship and design.
After talking it over with Alexander Milliken, his dealer at the time, Castle moved into a new phase.
“One of the most mysterious turns he ever took in our opinion was this whole fine-furniture series that he did for Milliken,” Johnson says. “There was a kind of post modernism in the air, this was in the early ’80s, and he was following up, maybe, in that case, on something that was in the air rather than what he really necessarily believed creatively.
“He produced some brilliant pieces; he kind of out-Ruhlmanned Ruhlmann,” she adds. “But he said he had no interest in that period at all because it was about skill, and that’s not what art is about. Art is not about skill. Craft is about skill. He makes that point very tellingly.”
As out of character as the Ruhlmann-inspired period might have seemed, it was totally in character in one essential way, and that was Castle’s willingness to adapt and change.
“Wendell is an astute kind of guy,” says Peter Pierobon, a Vancouver furniture maker who studied at Castle’s school in the early 1980s and went on to work in his shop for a couple of years. “He always told us as students that through the research he did into the early 20th-century designers like Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and others that he basically came to understand that when styles changed, if you didn’t change with them, you’re going to go out of business. And that, I think, created the foundation for his desire to constantly be making new bodies of work.
“Wendell is in there and creatively challenging himself,” Pierobon adds. “I have to say it’s a risky way of working. If you’re constantly changing you’re pushing forward; you’re not always going to be able to produce the most sophisticated, resolved things until you’ve worked through that process. Going back in Wendell’s body of work, there were entire shows of stuff that I thought, ‘Oh, my God, Wendell, you’ve really lost it.’ And I’m not the only one who thought that way. And then the next show comes up and you go, ‘Oh my God, that is so stunning. It’s so beautiful,” he says.
Castle looks back on this relatively short period as something of an aberration, but it provided two extremely valuable lessons. One, is that it’s “OK to make mistakes, you learn that way.” The second was that no matter how finely made, furniture patterned after Ruhlmann was never going to be art.
“So the discussion came up that what if I were to make some furniture with extraordinarily high-quality materials and extraordinarily high craftsmanship, would this, then, have the effect of bringing it up to being like art?” Castle says. “I now feel that was wrong. That did not happen, and would never happen, probably. But at that point it seemed like an interesting challenge.”
And it goes right to the heart of one of Castle’s rules of thumb: “If you hit the bull’s eye every time, the target is too near.”
When Does Furniture Become Art?
Some furniture makers may call themselves “artists” but that doesn’t mean their work is viewed equally with painting or sculpture. Castle, however, genuinely has a foot in both worlds, making objects that are completely functional even if they are designed as art.
His focus is on design, and he thinks many contemporary makers spend too much time trying to cut the perfect dovetail and not enough time thinking about design.
“I don’t think there’s enough emphasis on, or understanding of what constitutes, art,” he says. “How do you make furniture that becomes art? A lot of people want to do this, and the answer is not easy. But one thing is for sure: You don’t make it ‘arty,’ which is what a lot of people do.”
Castle had a call a few years ago from someone who was working up a presentation for the Furniture Society and who wanted to know what, in Castle’s opinion, constituted art furniture. Before Castle could reply, the caller gave his own definition, which was that art furniture had certain characteristics of furniture, but it really wasn’t usable.
“And I said I don’t think that’s true at all,” Castle says. “First of all, I would never use the term ‘art furniture.’ I think it would be a lot safer to say, ‘furniture as art,’ or even, more accurately, ‘design as art.’ It should absolutely be functional. It has other characteristics that make it fall into the category of art. And sometimes those are pretty hard to define. But they’re there. Sometimes it’s the way things are made. Sometimes it’s what they’re made out of….I don’t think you do that by decorating it. What you have to have is a vocabulary that encompasses a lot of things.”
Castle worked hard from the beginning to place his work in the realm of art, not craft, although now he wonders whether he should have pushed even harder. His intent, however, may help explain his attitude toward the raw materials of furniture making, particularly wood. It’s a very different outlook than that of other 20th century giants – Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, James Krenov – whose regard for a plank of wood could border on reverential.
Esherick, for example, eventually came around to like Castle’s work, but in the beginning was critical because he thought Castle wasn’t showing enough respect for wood. Esherick might bend wood, Castle says, but he would never laminate it.
“Basically, I would have to agree that I don’t really respect the wood, and I think that’s another thing that sculptors have to think about: You can’t think about the value of the material. You cannot even consider that, I think. You need to think of all material as you’d think of clay. It doesn’t really have any value. It’s only what you make out of that gives it value. That’s the exact opposite of what Nakashima would think, and also Esherick and Maloof. There’s a respect there for material that I do not have.”
Coming Full Circle
For all of his experimentation in shape, form and materials, some years ago Castle decided the approach that most suited him was laminating and carving.
“That is really me,” he says. “And I came to that decision by asking, ‘What if I had no assistants and I had to make the work myself?’ What would I make?’ Well, it was clear to me that’s what I would make. I wasn’t going to cut dovetail joints. I wasn’t going to veneer. I was going to carve. So that’s what I’m doing. And it’s really working. It’s working.”
And yet it’s not exactly the way it used to be.
Castle has taken full advantage of digital technology to produce furniture. Pieces now begin as models carved from blocks of urethane foam. When he’s satisfied, the models are scanned. Computer software turns these digital images into paper patterns for all of the laminations he will need. Once the plies are glued together in order, it becomes a job of slicing away the sharp edges until the finished piece emerges.
He’s also been tinkering with the use of an industrial robot like those used on automotive assembly lines (it turns out the automobile industry sells used robots for a relative song once they can’t operate at their initial tolerances). He’s hired some engineers to produce the software to guide the machine. It’s been slow going, but in time he hopes to install one of the machines at his workshop.
His long and varied design history, his efforts to cast furniture as functional art and his unsentimental view of his materials all would seem to put Castle far from the mold of traditional woodworkers. Does he think he’s made much of an impact on them, the men and women who are happy making furniture in their basement workshops on the weekends?
“No, not much,” he says. “I think I’ve had an impact and influenced people to be in interested in making furniture, but it’s not furniture like mine. I’ve just elevated the interest in having a shop and making something. I imagine there’s been some influence there.”
Johnson, who has seen some of the best work contemporary furniture makers have to offer, has a slightly different take on Castle’s legacy. She says he’s carried on conceptually what Esherick established – namely, treating furniture as a fine-art medium.
“He can legitimately claim that he has succeeded on his own terms,” she says. “His furniture forms are extraordinary. His detractors will say these are forms that no human being has seen before, and it’s true. He really has made the connection between sculpture and furniture his, he’s marked that territory. He’s put a fence around it and he can claim it as his own.” PWM
Wendell Castle’s Rules of Thumb
1. If you are in love with an idea you are no judge of its beauty or value.
2. It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
3. After learning the tricks of the trade don’t think you know the trade.
4. We hear and apprehend what we already know.
5. The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
6. Never state the problem to yourself in the same terms it was brought to you.
7. If it’s offbeat or surprising it’s probably useful.
8. If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
9. Don’t get too serious.
10. If you hit the bull’s eye every time the target is too near.
Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Fine Homebuilding magazine and the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. He lives in southern Maine.
Editor’s Note: In addition to the Wendell Castle video, we also have available “Woodworking Legends: An Interview with Toshio Odate” and “Woodworking Legends: An Interview with Frank Klausz.” (Or get all three for a limited-time special price in our Legends Collection.)