This lot will be included in the forthcoming revised catalogue raisonné by the Wendell Castle Studio.
Sotheby's would like to thank Glenn Adamson for his assistance with the cataloguing of this lot.
It’s a truism that the best buildings are often those architects design for themselves. Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi, Frank Gehry: their own homes must be counted among their greatest work (though in Venturi’s case, it was a house for his mother). It is not difficult to see why. Architects are not usually wealthy enough to build big. But when they serve as their own clients, their vision is at its purest, a direct expression of their ideas and ways of living.
The same principle applies to other art forms. If you want to appreciate Isamu Noguchi, you really must go to the museum he set up at his former studio in Long Island City. The most beautiful settings for the furniture of postwar luminaries like J. B. Blunk, Sam Maloof, and George Nakashima were always their own residences. And in general, artists often hold back their best work for a time, so they don’t lose touch with its magic.
All this is certainly true of Wendell Castle. When this greatest of all American furniture designers died earlier this year, he still had in his possession many of the key groundbreaking objects he’d made at the beginning of his career, among them some experiments he’d made in Kansas in the late 1950s, which he’d fashioned out of reshaped stocks from a nearby gun factory. That body of work helped him see that furniture and sculpture did not need to be mutually exclusive categories. This insight soon led him to his key early breakthrough, the stack-lamination technique, which involves profiling boards into cross-sections of a form, gluing them up, and then carving them into a curvaceous unity. Castle retained some of his best early works in this idiom, too – and sure enough, he returned to them in the last decade of his career, in the greatest “third act” of American design history.
It is at this juncture, where the personal and professional converge, where we find the executive desk that Castle made in 1973. It is a thing of stunning beauty. The form is both physically and visually anchored by a stack-laminated pier at one end. This imposing vertical mass is articulated by five pivoting drawers with swelling pulls, a rhythmic arrangement that is in turn framed within two vertical ridges, that give definition and vertical thrust to the composition. (The way that the drawers break inward along one of these lines is one of the piece’s most gorgeous passages.) The desk then extends outward in a breathtaking cantilever, giving the impression of a powerfully-bodied bird with an out-swept wing. Another drawer nestles inside that tapering blade of wood, echoing at slightly smaller scale the drawers to the left. A gentle but decisive notch in the back helps to further articulate the form, while also indicating a seating position for a visitor—after all, this is not just a sculpture, but a functional object.
Castle knew how good the design was: not only did he make two further iterations, but also kept this prime version, using it as his own desk for eight years, from 1973 to 1981. He was more a creature of the workshop than the office – his idea of a good week was seven days standing in sawdust. Even so, it’s compelling to think of everything he did at this desk, with his slender frame leaning against its inner curve. Seated here, Castle would have made calls to the many corporate and individual clients he had in those days, written letters in his elegant hand, dealt with the innumerable complexities of running an increasingly large and ambitious studio. Here he developed the ideas for his first trompe l’oeil works
(see lot 242)—a high water mark for conceptual and technical achievement in the medium—as well as striking departures into historicist classicism, his way of responding to the currents of postmodernism.
Not everything Castle conceived in these years has endured as well as his classic stack-laminated work, but all of it was interesting. He never stopped expanding the scope of his medium or his own capacious imagination, never ceased exploring the possibilities of new materials, techniques, images, and ideas. It may seem somewhat fanciful to suggest that this desk helped him to do so. It is an eminently practical object; efficient, even, in the way that its sculptural volumes are activated by the penetrating drawers. Yet it also operates as an apt metaphor for the man, who was so firmly anchored in the ethic of work and craft, and used that grounding as leverage, enabling him to reach out into free space. Think of it not just as a desk, but also a diving board: a perch from which to leap, again and again, into the previously unimagined.