Wendell Castle early work showcased

One can’t seriously discuss the birth of art furniture and the studio furniture movement without talking about Wendell Castle. His work, especially the earlier pieces, which brought freeform sculpture and furniture together in one medium, influenced more than one generation of woodworkers and furniture designers. Now the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., is calling extra attention to those early pieces with a show called Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms, which displays Castle’s work from 1959 to 1979.

The exhibit is the first public showing of these works in 20 years and coincides with Castle’s 80th birthday. It includes not just furniture pieces but also original drawings, and there’s even the video from the famous television game show “What’s My Line?” when the show’s panel tried to guess who the real Wendell Castle was from three contenders.

Panel discussion opens show 

A special treat for those attending the opening of the show was a panel discussion involving Castle, the show’s co-curator Evan Snyderman, and Alastair Gordon, an essayist and critic, who wrote the show’s accompanying book. Castle delighted the audience with his wry humor and unassuming accounts of how much of his early pieces were created.

Explaining how he’d never taken formal cabinetmaking or furniture courses other than a woodshop class in the seventh grade, Castle described how he obtained wood from a gunstock factory, using rejected stock blanks. He used a drill press and a band saw. “I dowelled everything because that’s all I knew,” he said. His early furniture all came out of his study of sculpture.

“How come furniture can’t be art,” he asked. “I did pieces as sculpture, but it was really furniture.” He started to question basic furniture design tenets. For example, he asked why legs have to come out of the bottom of a table and then built a coffee table in which the legs flow around the sides and suspend the top from above.

Duck decoy to stack laminations 

Castle explained that one of his big breakthroughs came from an old Deltagram publication for hobbyists. It detailed how to make a duck decoy by stacking up layers of wood. When Castle applied the stack lamination technique to furniture, it freed him to explore wide variations in shape and design. “Early on I really only knew how to glue two boards together,” Castle said. “Laminating was the right thing for me.”

Although Castle learned more sophisticated joinery and even used it in his work, he remains a designer and sculptor first and a woodworker second. When one person in the audience asked him what his favorite tool was, Castle replied without hesitation, “The pencil. The act of drawing is the same as the act of thinking.”

Not about the wood 

Castle says right away that although he is known as a woodworker, “It is not about the wood.” He recalls, “I got a lot of criticism that I didn’t respect the wood.” He remembered attending a meeting of woodworkers and was accosted for his use of wood. “How could you use so much wood in one piece, they asked. Nobody would ask that of a sculptor.”

He described how he moved on from wood to plastic so he could take advantage of plastic’s wider potential color palette. Some of his earlier plastic work is also in the Aldrich show.

Today, Castle is still actively designing and creating. He uses modern computer technology to make accurate scale models, digitize the models, then digitally slice the piece to make the laminations. He uses 7-axis CNC machines for carving and maintains a full-time crew of eight employees.

“You are really able to do things you couldn’t do before,” he says.

Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms continues on display at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., through February 24, 2013. For more information, visit www.aldrichart.org.

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William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.