At the Design Miami show in December, Wendell Castle seemed to be everywhere. Demisch Danant gallery showed a new chair and coffee table he’d created, the gilded fiberglass forms somehow slightly cartoonish and sleek at the same time. Paul Johnson’s gallery, Phurniture, displayed vintage pieces in Castle’s trademark laminated-wood construction, including Crescent rocking chairs that looked as though they had been built for wind-tunnel aerodynamics, as well as a spectacularly groovy free-form, sculpted door from the late seventies. “Probably the best thing I’ve ever owned,” Johnson says.
Castle’s pieces blur the boundaries between sculp-ture and craft, and as the art and design worlds increasingly converge—at auction houses, at events like Design Miami, and in shows such as the recent Marc Newsom exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York—he seems to be a perfect product of the current trends. But really he’s been blurring that line since he first began building furniture in the early sixties. “I had exactly one class in woodworking when I was in seventh grade, in Kansas,” he says. “So I had to figure out a way to make furniture without knowing how to make anything out of wood.” Probably the biggest influence on Castle’s technique was a magazine article he read about fabricating a duck decoy from wooden cross sections—some 20 years before he crafted his first piece. “I realized that the easiest way to create the forms was to take a series of pieces of wood and just glue them together,” says the 74-year-old designer. He credits his lack of formal training with allowing him to develop unique organic shapes and unconventional methods. “My great advantage was being naïve and not knowing what I was doing,” Castle explains. “When you know too much, the pieces are sterile.” The interesting thing about his works, he has said, “is not what they are made out of but what they are."
The forms he creates are nearly always a departure from previous ideas of what a piece of furniture can be. Castle has designed tables that are entirely a swooping, drooping base, such as the prototype he made in 1968, in red painted wood, as well as tables that look like nothing so much as a brightly colored mustache. Some of his lamps bring to mind strange prehistoric plants, with lights where the flowers should be. (One from 1968 done in walnut brought $24,000 at Sotheby’s in 2004.) There was also a line of lighting fixtures, originally produced for the Lee Nordness Gallery in 1970 and more recently shown at the midcentury modern gallery R 20th Century. The fiberglass curved and bulging bases—in hot-rod metallic flake or neon pink—appear to be either swallowing or extruding the bulb.
Even the designer’s most traditional pieces defy expectations. A 1980 music stand, which sold for $33,000 at Sotheby’s in 2005, turns a simple shape into something that looks almost alive: part plant, part animal. A wooden coffee table circa 1966 went for $42,000 at auction in 2004, while another coffee table fetched $36,000 last December. Although some of his smaller pieces—such as the Studio Craft–style music stands he started making in the sixties—come up for sale often, it is still rare to see a Castle original at auction. According to James Zemaitis, Sotheby’s 20th-century decorative arts and design director, much of what has appeared on the market lately comes from first- generation collectors. “These pieces have been an important part of the lives of the owners,” he says. So important that many end up in museums instead of for sale, like a series of sixties-era Castle pieces that one collector donated to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Castle’s desire to explore those forms grew out of his interest in the work of sculptors such as Brancusi and Arp, but it was also a matter of practicality. “When I was putting together the plastic pieces,” he says, “I needed simple organic shapes so I could get them out of the molds intact.” Still, now that there’s no practical need for simplifying the shapes, he has come to realize that “it’s actually turned out to be a terrific, rich vocabulary, one that I’ve been able to work with and expand on throughout my career.”
At the December show in Miami, R 20th Century mounted a special exhibition for a limited edition series of Castle’s sixties-era Molar tables. Crafted in plastic and reinforced with gel-coated fiberglass, they were made using the original molds by a manufacturer in Buffalo that specializes in components for kit cars (Castle is an avid auto collector). Initially done in classic candy-coating hues, the new versions of four tables—ranging in size from the wall-mounted Cloud shelf to a massive conference table—are rendered in a gleaming jet black. “We chose black to de-Pop the pieces and bring them into the present moment,” says Evan Snyderman, who runs the TriBeCa design gallery with Zesty Meyers. “Castle is just a master of form, and the color really strips these pieces down to almost pure form,” Snyderman explains. “Once you’ve done that, you see how contemporary this work truly is.” The designer himself had no prob- lem with the previously vibrant works being reimagined in such a basic color. “It makes them more modern, but there’s also such a clarity to black,” Castle says. “I’ve started staining my wooden pieces black as well so that the eye won’t be distracted by the grain."
Though the biomorphic curves Castle made famous with his 1974 Zephyr chairs are now everywhere in contemporary design—from Zaha Hadid’s Aqua table to Newsom’s Lock-
heed chair—his work will never be mistaken for anyone else’s. Whether it’s made of plastic, wood, or fiberglass, a Castle piece always seems uniquely suspended somewhere between elegance and humor, between high Pop/space-age style and organic warmth.
Castle’s designs are available through Manhattan’s R 20th Century at 82 Franklin Street (212-343-7979; r20thcentury.com). The gallery will be showing the pieces at Design Miami in Basel, Switzerland, from June 11 to 16. His contemporary work will be sold through Friedman Benda in Basel as well as its New York gallery at 515 W. 26th Street (212-794-8950; friedmanbenda.com).