I t may be hard to picture today, but in 1960 the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibition about Art Nouveau. Curators Peter Selz and Mildred Constantine (who would go on to define the Funk movement in ceramics and the fiber art movement, respectively) framed the movement as a natural antecedent to modernism: “the 1890s was a period of boldness in experimentation, a time which not only tolerated new ideas but was eager for novelty.” Alongside a wealth of graphics and objets d’art, the exhibition featured some of the greatest furniture designers of the fin de siècle, such as Henry Van De Velde, Hector Guimard, and Gustav Serrurier-Bovy.
Wendell Castle saw that exhibition. Five years later, he completed work on the achingly beautiful desk and chair offered here. While not directly inspired by a particular example of Art Nouveau, it captures the spirit of the movement perfectly: the flowing lines, unfurling uninterruptedly across the composition; the delicate stance, on attenuated legs; and the luxurious material, a tropical hardwood called vermillion (more commonly known as African padauk, Pterocarpus soyauxi), whose rich figure acts as a lyrical accompaniment to the objects’ carved contours.
No question about it, this is drop-dead gorgeous furniture—and not what people necessarily expect from Wendell Castle. In 1965, he had only recently perfected his signature technique of stack lamination, in which thick boards are profiled, glued up, and then shaped to final form. That process is used to great advantage in the desk, with the stacked construction especially noticeable at the corners. (It makes you wonder what Van De Velde, et al., might have accomplished with the technique.) But it is a drastic departure from his usual approach.
Animated by a desire to escape the confines of conventional furniture, his creations at this time tended to be explicitly sculptural, often monolithic—recalling the work of Henry Moore far more than any historic cabinetmaker. Even his willingness to set a desk on four identical legs comes as a surprise. He loved to play games with support structure, planting a chair on a single thick trunk, or bridging a side table from the floor up to the wall. This spirit of invention also informs other desks from this seminal period, including the one from his own office - a great cantilever stretching out from a single pillar, made in 1973 (and recently sold in these rooms) – and the Silver Leaf Desk (1968) now at the Racine Art Museum, with its a biomorphic metallic top coasting atop on a single sinuous curve.
Yet it is not difficult to see why Castle would have been so attracted to Art Nouveau. For the same reason that Selz and Constantine were: the movement witnessed a sudden freedom in design that really did anticipate the radical gestures of modernism. And Castle was also passionately interested in the ultimate creative topic of Nouveau design: the journey that a line can take through space. Observe, on the vermillion desk, the pathway that proceeds from one front foot to the other, coursing up the serpentine leg, banking in a gentle curve, settling into a flat lip that defines the work surface, then carrying on in like manner on the other side. Similar articulations can be seen on many of Castle’s works of the 1960s, and although they usually head in still more unexpected directions, the sureness of touch is just the same.
There are also other aspects, here, that suggest connections to Castle’s more avant garde production. It’s hard to imagine anyone else conceiving the vortex-like handmade keys, which can be used to open up two integral storage compartments, letting them unfold like wings. Still more daring is the chair, a version of a spry three- legged form called the Alpha (he is known to have made another in vermillion in 1965, now lost; and also returned to the design in 1980, making versions in cherry and maple, and a related form in walnut with a jagged crest, called Victory). The stunning delicacy of the form looks as though it would require a certain poise in use, but it allows for unified upward movement into the sculpted backrest—a dynamic not wholly dissimilar from Castle’s iconic tripod music stands.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see another important way that the vermillion desk and chair fit into Castle’s career. Perhaps coincidentally, it anticipated a turn that his work would later take in the 1980s. Ever restless and propelled by the prevailing winds of postmodern historicism, he undertook a lengthy exploration of furniture styles such as Neoclassicism and Art Deco. In keeping with the overstated times, these pieces often tended toward exaggeration— you can almost feel the air quotes around them—but they more than attest to Castle’s deep knowledge of past idioms. True, he was more influenced by the forms of nature and sculpture than he was by other furniture. But he was also visually omnivorous, and never shied away from a challenge. One can easily imagine him in his Rochester studio, paging through the MoMA Art Nouveau catalogue, and asking himself if he could top the wonders within. Any furniture maker might have posed that question. Few but Castle could have answered it in the affirmative.