Designer experiments with digital design, after 60 years of handcrafted furniture

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Wendell Castle, “Table-Chair-Stool” (1968) with “Serpentine Floor Lamp” (1965-67), installation view in ‘Wendell Castle Remastered’ at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (photo by l ‘author for Hyperallergic)

Designer Wendell Castle has made a career out of defying the boundaries that define art and furniture. A new exhibition, Wendell Castle remastered, on display at the Museum of Arts and Design, celebrates Castle’s many innovations, by juxtaposing a selection of historically significant works with a group of new works that combine craftsmanship and digital technologies, including 3D scanning, 3D modeling and computer-controlled milling. This is the first exhibition to examine Castle’s digital works.

While its predecessors, like Georges nakashima, preferring the organic expressiveness of the wood surface, Castle developed a sculptural technique in the early 1960s called “stacking layering,” where thick slabs of wood were glued together before being sculpted into dynamic biomorphic shapes. It was this unprecedented approach to furniture making that defined Castle’s six-decade career and made him a legend in the American fine furniture movement.

“Scribe’s Stool” (1961-1962) is one of the first works exhibited. Tall, slim, sinewy and bony, the stool appears technically functional, but its unsightly high chair-like structure would make it difficult to sit on. The elaborate and ample gestures of Art Nouveau were an obvious inspiration for this and other early works on display. “Scribe’s Stool”, above all, underlines Castle’s evolving desire that his furniture be thought out and put together in the same terms as sculpture.

“Blanket Chest” (1963) was Castle’s first laminate cabinet. It is a voluptuous work in the shape of a radish – and a prelude, for Castle will soon master the technique, giving him the opportunity to achieve even larger and more textured voluminous designs that are reminiscent of the biomorphic works of Jean Arp and Henry Moore.

Castle’s Serpentine Floor Lamp (1965-67) appears shamelessly designed for the market. It is an elegant mahogany work, which curves and bends and straightens. The work was actually the result of Castle manipulating and twisting a paperclip.

Wendell Castle, “Benny” (1969) with “Cloud Shelf” (1969), installation view (author’s photo for Hyperallergic)

“Benny” (1969) is an arch-shaped lamp that rests on the floor with a glossy finish and a neon stripe that runs along its spine. It is not known why his name is “Benny”, but unlike the Lee Nordness Gallery – which did not succeed sell a single unit – from what it looked like, that would have made the perfect product for IKEA when it first opened in 1973.

One of the most emblematic examples of Castle’s desire to combine form and function can be found in the wonderfully designed elongated work titled “Table-Chair-Stool” (1968). In this work, which was featured in Castle’s first solo exhibition in New York City in 1968, Castle explores simple furniture associations – a stool, table, and chair – and connects them into one statement.

View of the installation of “Wendell Castle Remastered” at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York (courtesy Museum of Arts and Design, photo by Butcher Walsh)

The exhibition timeline jumps to the near present with a selection of new works created using computer software, sculpted by a CNC milling robot, which is programmed to perform precise carving and cutting. This new technology has allowed Castle to create great works with more regularity and consistency, and in shorter time frames. Although the milling robot does the majority of the work, each design still undergoes tedious manual finishing sessions. It is evident that Castle and his assistants resisted the use of this technology for as long as they could, as these advancements have been available for years. “You have to be in tune with the times! Castle said in a video interview, projected on a wall next to his work. “You still want to stretch and go beyond what you’ve done before. “

But this is where the complexity and sophistication of the work is overtaken by thick and heavy mammoth forms. Bigger is sometimes not better. What Castle has swapped for scale is the elegance of its lines, that plunging Art Nouveau quality so revered in his early works.

The Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine, nicknamed Mr. Chips, milling the interior of the cabinet component from “Remembering You” (2015) (courtesy Friendman Benda and the artist, photo by Matt Wittmeyer)

Almost all recent works refer to Castle’s iconic pod-shaped shapes. Some incorporate stunted cone-shaped shapes, which have the potential to sprout into the coiled fronds of young ferns, but they don’t.

There are 15 new digitally created works on display. “The Secret of a Few” (2012) is one of the first creations made with digital technology. It is a work of stained ash wood, carved into three bucket seats with rounded ends that curve and rock. The horizontal strapping of the stacked rolling process is exemplary, providing an elegance unique to Castle. The work is based on an earlier work entitled “Settee” (1967) which is part of the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Based on the technology, Castle scanned two different chairs, digitally cut them out in the center, and grafted the halves together to create a new chair called “More or less” (2014). It is one of the most interesting recent creations, as its shape and contours skillfully navigate the territory between sculpture and furniture.

“High Hopes” (2015) and “Suspended Disbelief” (2015) revisit earlier designs and reflect Castle’s technological capabilities on a monumental scale. The first functions as a towering lamp and is over nine feet tall; the second, like a table that stretches 13 feet in diameter. They are heroic works, but they lack expressive qualities.

Unlike modern painting and sculpture – where experiencing the process is part of the viewer’s excitement – furniture, like architecture, can appear still and lifeless. The emphasis on the functionality of the “product” often prevents the viewer from considering the artistic intention, inherent symbolism or psychology behind the work. It is when furniture, like architecture, is used and brought to life by people, that we feel its breadth, the anguish of its conception and the drama of its profession.

Enter the world of dance and the young choreographer / performer Dylan Crossman who, on commission from the museum, presented in November “Oscillate dreaming», A site-specific dance piece created in response to Castle’s installation of two outdoor bronze sculptures.

Crossman’s Dylan Crossman In (c) e performs his site-specific dance “Oscillating While Dreaming with Wendell Castle’s Wandering Mountain” (2014) (costume design by Quinn Czejkowski, photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

Crossman, a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, brought out humanity in Castle’s work. Two dancers, Lisa Boudreau and Russell Stuart Lilie, join Crossman in street clothes and puffy jackets designed by Quinn Czejkowski, to form a street side line in front of the museum. Crossman’s choreography is a mixture of pedestrian and technique. It’s emotionally vulnerable without the weight of the narrative. The torso and legs work independently in pulsations. The turns in flats and colorful laces look as exciting as ever, as the crowd surrounds the dancers. With wide arms and in unison, the trio measures the space in combinations that are sometimes ballet, sometimes stroll. At one point, each of the dancers, Boudreau in particular, take turns standing on “Tentation” (2014). In an instant she hit a beautiful leaning, leg up behind her, and with the next breath she takes took a elongate, stretching her body back into Lillie’s open palm.

Sensitive to time and rhythm, Crossman offers real moments of pause to hear the sounds of the city and study bodies in movement and question our relationship to Castle’s works.

Crossman’s choreography is not imposed by the sculpture and remains completely independent. Which is refreshing. Because when the dancers interact or echo a pose in relation to Castle’s bronzes, it’s specific and momentous, like when Crossman and Lillie pushed and pulled each other in and out of the concave seats in Castle’s “Wandering Mountain” ( 2014). It is then that one fully understands the contours and the relationship of Castle with the body.

“I have no trouble coming up with new ideas,” Castle said in a recent maintenance, and it is easy to see through this exhibition, which juxtaposes examples of old and recent work, how the artist continues to be inventive and innovative today.

Wendell Castle Sitting on “Long Night” (2011) (courtesy Friedman Benda and the artist, photo by Adrien Millot)

Wendell Castle remastered continues at the Museum of Arts and Design (2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan) until February 28, 2016.

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