Design pioneer Wendell Castle discusses the trajectory of a career that challenges traditional boundaries.
Wendell Castle's creative mind and visionary approach toggle between sculpture and furniture design, creating new ideas in design vocabulary.
Wendell Castle has pioneered a sculptural approach to design ever since the 1960s, decades before the current enthusiasm for "design-art." After studying industrial design followed by sculpture at the University of Kansas in the American Midwest, Castle – who is 75 – set upon a self-styled goal: to make sculptural furniture respected as an art discipline. Over the past 40 years, he has steadily championed an interdisciplinary approach through his sensuous furniture pieces.
Now a design veteran, Castle has gone from being included in such books as "Crafts and Craftsmen" in the late 1960s to ones like "The Sculpture Reference" in the past few years. The change in attitudes toward his work reflects the shifting perception and elevation of design. Today, Castle is one of the most sought-after designers in the US, and his work regularly appears in design fairs such as Design Basel and Design Miami. He is represented by the Friedman Benda gallery in New York, alongside such names as Ettore Sottsass and Ron Arad.
What's your definition of luxury?
The best of whatever category it's in, whether it's a watch, a chair or a car. If it's a chair, it needs to be made from the very best materials. Luxury objects are extraordinary in every way; it's not just about being expensive.
If luxury were ...
A Bugatti automobile. To me, Bugatti is a true luxury automobile. It's probably not practical, but is extraordinarily beautiful and well-made. It was the most luxurious automobile in the 1930s. It wasn't like Rolls Royce but more like a sports car.
An epiphany, when something suddenly makes a great deal of sense or you have a breakthrough in your thinking.
Brancusi's studio in Paris.
What was your ambition when you started your career?
I originally wanted to do sculpture. Then I realized that the furniture world was wide open in the early '60s and nobody was doing much. I'd seen what was coming out of Italy and thought that was very interesting. I felt I could take my sculpture vocabulary into furniture. I found that the techniques I'd been using, like laminating and carving, were absolutely adaptable. I had a mission to get sculptural furniture regarded as fine art and be respected and treated as such. But if somebody had told me it would take this long before I saw my dream come true, I might have been discouraged!
How was your work received back then?
I was beating my head against the wall, because although I was having very modest successes, like being able to show and sell my work and having it bought by some museums, I still ended up in the "craft and design" category. But the successes I did have encouraged me to think that I was on the right track. I started very early on to think in terms of editions, and this led me to make works in fiberglass, because the material was repeatable.
One of your latest fiberglass pieces is Black Widow, the shape of which is reminiscent of a spider or a butterfly. How did the idea germinate?
I develop most of my ideas through drawing, and sometimes the drawings create shapes, which I try to make sense out of. This time, I was playing around with the idea of the legs being spilled over the chair and the arms falling down like a waterfall. I really didn't think about a spider or a butterfly until later. Then I thought of a black widow spider whose body has a spot of red on it. If there is direct light on the piece, the red shines through the black. This effect was developed through a hot-rod technique using very specialized paints with peculiar properties. You can make one color come thorough another, and this is shown through adding or subtracting light.
Do you seek to express something specific through design?
Not in a general way, but I do in some of the pieces. Right now, I want one of them to have a sense of speed, as if it's going fast even though it won't actually be moving!
What else are you working on?
A giant egg piece. Imagine a scooped-out seat with a table inside, carved from its interior, rather like a cave. And also a giant, nine-foot-tall floor lamp, and a desk with a trunk, like a car trunk, attached. They're all very sculptural, soft – organic shapes with no hard edges, no straight lines. Those kinds of forms have appealed to me for a long time, because they're comfortable, friendly and sensuous. It's very nice to run your hand over them and feel the surface. They're also very interesting visually.
What do you feel most passionate about out of everything you've made?
I think the piece you're currently working on is always the most interesting. This may or may not be true, but it gives you momentum, so that you put everything into it.
Do you regard yourself as a sculptural designer?
I probably haven't used that expression, but it's a pretty good description. It's a problem at cocktail parties when people ask me what I do. One thing I don't say is, "I make furniture," because the other person usually has an uncle or a grandfather that made furniture and it carries a completely different connotation from what I do. Designer is fine, sculptor is fine, and the expression "furniture-as-art" is OK.
What surprises you the most about the elevation of design?
Forty years ago, who'd have imagined a piece of furniture by a living person selling for a million dollars? In the '60s I thought $10,000 for a piece would be similar to what a sculptor would get. But I also felt that just because an individual would pay that didn't mean the art world would consider furniture and sculpture on the same level. There's still a sense of this today, given the huge disparities at auctions between the highest price fetched for a painting and the highest price for a piece of furniture. But some collectors who understand the art and design world think $100,000 for a chair is a very good deal!
How has your clientele changed over the decades?
My work used to be bought largely by collectors of crafts; today, collectors of paintings buy it. The fairs have been very helpful, as has the association between art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach and design fairs like Design Miami.
Which contemporary designers do you admire?
I like some of Marc Newson's and Zaha Hadid's work, and Ron Arad, Mattia Bonetti and Marcel Wanders are doing interesting things.
How did you feel about Ettore Sottsass passing away?
I was very sad. He'd had dinner at my house 20 years ago, so I knew him slightly. His last show at Friedman Benda was really fantastic and featured some of his best ever work. There were some very large combination pieces, such as desks with incorporated storage systems and bookshelves. They had a vocabulary that you'd associate with him but were more sophisticated than what he'd done with Memphis.
What are the difficulties facing American designers?
It's tougher for designers in the US than in Europe. Good European design schools have access to high technology and European industries seem to cooperate with young people. But American industries don't cooperate much with designers; our automobile industry has technology that I'd like to access but can't. Not a single one of the designers I mentioned is American, and it's difficult for students because there isn't a culture supporting design.
What motivates you to continue designing?
I thoroughly enjoy it and look forward to getting into the studio every day. It's as exciting today as when I started. I can't think of anything I'd rather be doing.
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For more information: www.wendellcastle.com and www.friedmanbenda.com