Wendell Castle Desk
The Wendell Castle Vermillion Desk, 1965
By 1965 Wendell Castle was at the forefront of what was known as the Studio Craft, Studio Furniture, or Craft Furniture Movement. He was becoming the star among a group of artist/artisans who sought to make furniture by skilled hand and with such individual design and beauty that it became art. Castle would go further than any post war maker/designer to push furniture into an authentic art form.
Castle had also shifted the technology of furniture making. He used the sculptor's technique of "stack lamination" which calls for the gluing together of layers of wood to form a mass from which furniture can literally be sculpted, as opposed to the traditional joinery of panels, posts, and single strips of wood for each "bone" of the whole.
By 1965 he had come so far that he basically renounced the repetition of older furniture forms. However, there were a very small number of pieces produced in tribute to Art Nouveau, a style he had greatly admired. The Vermillion desk would be the major example of this "Castle/Nouveau" type and it would become what many regard as the most beautiful and among the very most important of his works.
The desk and chair are of Vermillion, a wood now known more by the name Padauk. It is difficult to work with due to variations in hardness and, as Castle discovered, the dust can be most irritating. There would be no other major works in this wood by Castle. It is most entertaining and a bit bewildering to survey and study the curves, planes, and surfaces of this work. It seems almost impossible to conceive, construct, and manage all the shifts in form and line that Castle did with this desk. There is a definite Art Nouveau aspect, but when compared to antique Nouveau the older works often look flat and done with surface work only. Castle seems to have made the "nouveau" come from inside the desk. It bursts with ideas that appear to originate from deep within. Most Art Nouveau relies on surface decoration; Castle gave us depth and undulation of the entire body.
The management of multiple complex organic forms most clearly reveals the genius of Castle and this wooden wonder. It is light, it is solid. It is masculine, it is feminine. It is curvaceous, yet it grows from bold horizontal bands. The strong upper shell and bold front crest are undercut from the inner legs and trimmed by inward curves at the outer top edges. The cabriole leg rises to this upper corner and seems to suspend the main body. It becomes difficult to even describe the tricks and successes of design here without borrowing from the world of fluid and aero dynamics. They use a language with terms like empennage, tumblehome, rake, swage line, and turn under. All of these terms and more apply here, but in harmony and balance. There is no handle, no square corner, and no applied molding. The Castle-made key sculptures are the only jewelry added.
The chair is worthy of some discussion. Although similar to other early Castle chairs and similar to chairs of his fellow Studio Furniture artists, it has lovely construction and nicely done off center design of the back splat. Perhaps most notable is the fact that such a design-strong chair works so well with the desk. Castle was confronted with two elements having numerous curves and seven legs. Again, his "management" skills are extraordinary. The chair legs do not copy the desk legs, but they pick up and repeat parts of curves in such a way that the ensemble is absolutely correct.
The desk was featured in a show at the Chicago Renaissance Society about the time of completion, but details are incomplete. It was shown with works by Wharton Esheric, a man Castle greatly admired. When first shown commercially in Rochester, NY it was immediately sold to a young family. The graphic designer father had to seek permission to make time payments in order to keep a wife and three young children sheltered and fed. The family has owned the desk and chair ever since. It is remarkable how much joy it gave them and how much fine care they gave it. The condition is superb, with only minor and expected signs of use. Though it will leave the family soon it was always a strong link to the local arts community, the maker, and institutions and staff that were encountered in nearly five decades.
From 1989-91 the desk was featured in a multi museum tour that was basically a Wendell Castle 30 year retrospective. Organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, the show toured Detroit, Wilmington, Richmond, Rochester, and New York. From this tour came the catalog/book by Davira Taragin, Edward Cooke, Jr, and Joseph Giovannini that is still an important and popular Castle reference. The Vermillion desk appears in two full page images--clamshell storage lids up and lids down. Although 25 years old and little like most Castle works at the time, the desk seems to have generated much publicity and show attendance. Most newspaper and magazine reviews mention it, many use images of it as an unique Wendell Castle effort. It can be said that it became an iconic image of the tour. Reviews used the words, "sexy", "sensuous", and one spoke of it as ready to "leap". Since then it has remained in the family home.
Wendell Castle has long been the most important Studio Furniture artist. He is the recipient of several degrees, a number of lifetime achievement awards, and is represented in dozens of museums worldwide. He has edited, experimented, and altered his methods and styles constantly over the years. He is self critical and driven to explore new things even as he approaches his 80th birthday. The Vermillion desk marks a point of astonishing young talent. It is said to be his last major work entirely by his own hand, save for the final sanding. It is clearly a hallmark on the road from "furniture" to "art" by being completely functional…and strikingly lovely.