A LOT TO LOVE – JAD ON WENDELL CASTLE'S "TELL THE TREES" CHAIR
14 May 2019
We sat down with Jad Attal, Rago’s 20th/21st C. Design Specialist, to learn a little bit more about his favorite piece in our May 18-19 Design Auctions: a unique chair by Wendell Castle dubbed "Tell the Trees."
Wendell Castle is largely considered to be the father of the American Studio Furniture Movement. Do you believe this to be a fair assessment? Why or why not?
Yes and no. We can’t forget that it really was Wharton Esherick that started the sculptural furniture movement, beginning around the 1920s. Not only did Esherick’s work define American Studio furniture for many years, but he also showed aspiring craftsmen a business model that they could use and ideally prosper from, that is, making both finely crafted items for family and friends as well as commissions for homes and institutions. Castle adopted this model at the start of his career.
What do you find most compelling about Castle’s designs?
Castle started out making finely crafted pieces, like his iconic sheet music stand, which weren’t so very different from Esherick’s earlier productions. But by the 1960s, he was experimenting with both the form and utility of wood or plastic, flat-stacking layers of wood, carving shapes from dense walnut, using a single sheet of fiberglass to create a sit-able sculpture resembling a human molar. He re-envisioned what Studio furniture could be, expanding it to include a joyous celebration of globular volume and shape. During the final chapter of his career, his last ten to fifteen years of production, Castle embraced cutting-edge manufacturing processes that let him express his vision yet more freely.
Wendell Castle enjoyed a career spanning more than six decades. Where does this piece fit into the chronology of his oeuvre?
It’s a piece from the end of his life and career and one that would be near impossible to make with human hands alone. He used state of the art computer-driven modeling and manufacturing to stack and carve ash into a seamless assemblage of complex forms, playing with positive and negative space to create a wonderfully human-scaled sculpture that the artist very much wanted you to sit in. I did, and will continue to do so until a new owner comes to take it home – I just love this chair!
What about this particular piece makes it resonate so strongly for you?
I didn’t always love Wendell Castle’s sensibilities. I think that’s because I first became aware of him through handling his late 90s and early 2000s pieces, which are in an aesthetic class all their own. They can be hard to understand and warm to, often sporting zig-zaggy lines and forms and very unclear in their function. That’s not to say that there aren’t some stellar examples from this era; there certainly are. But to start here, at what I consider the most challenging point of entry, forced me to look backwards and forwards, to take it all in and truly understand the scope of Castle’s work. If you do just that, then think of this chair as a late iteration of a lineage, and ponder the narrative of change (knowing how hard it is for any of us to change anything in our lives), that perspective alone is a thing of beauty.
Works by Wendell Castle regularly sell for prices in excess of five-figures on the secondary market. This one in particular is estimated at $60,000 – 80,000. What is it about his designs that inspire such enthusiasm?
Wendell Castle is, in the greater scope of the American Studio Furniture Movement, a rebel. His every creation is a revolt against the status quo. If there’s one thing people to respond to, it’s a lovable rebel. His rebelliousness in design, his abstract forms that succeed so brilliantly on a functional level (this chair is so damn comfortable and gorgeous to look at), helps drive the market.
Further, Wendell and Co. did a remarkable job of keeping track of his works and not so long ago published a catalogue raisonné. This, paired with the sheer difficulty of copying or counterfeiting his work, has helped create tremendous confidence among collectors.