Lot 110
  • 110

WENDELL CASTLE | An Important "Vermillion" Desk and Chair

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • Wendell Castle
  • An Important "Vermillion" Desk and Chair
  • the desk and chair each signed and dated WC 65
  • vermillion stack laminate, brass
  • desk: 34 1/2  x 68 x 27 1/4  in. (87.6 x 172.7 x 69.2 cm)chair: 31 3/4  x 21 5/8  x 25 1/4  in. (80.6 x 54.8 x 64.1 cm)
  • 1965
with two original brass keys executed by the artist


Acquired directly from the artist by the original owner, Rochester, New York, 1965
Acquired from the above by the present owner


Designed by Wendell Castle, Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York, December 3, 1965-January 2, 1966
Wendell Castle, Wharton Esherick, Sam Maloof, Marcello Grassmann, Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, January 24-February 23, 1966
Furniture by Wendell Castle, travelling retrospective exhibition, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, December 5, 1989-February 4, 1990; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, March 9-May 13, 1990; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia, June 19-August 19, 1990; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York, November 17, 190-January 20, 1991; American Crafts Museum, New York, February 14-April 30, 1991


Helen Giambruni, “Wendell Castle,” Craft Horizons, vol. 28, September-October 1968, p. 30 (for the present lot illustrated)
Laurie Hindson, “Bean Barn Art,” Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY, May 9, 1976 (for the present lot illustrated)
Davira S. Taragin, Edward S. Cooke, Jr., and Joseph Giovanni, Furniture by Wendell Castle, New York, 1989, pp. 32-33 (for the present lot illustrated)
“Art,” Michigan Magazine, September 17, 1989 (for the present lot illustrated)
Sally Vallongo, “Wendell Castle Takes an Artistic View of Furniture,” The Blade, Toledo, OH, December 17, 1989 (for the present lot illustrated)
Joan Boram, “His Artistry in Furniture Melds Form and Function,” Observer, Farmington, MI, January 4, 1990 (for the present lot illustrated)
Edward J. Sozanski, “The Table as Artistic Statement,” Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 1990 (for the present lot illustrated)
Ron Netsky, “Carving Out a Career: Retrospective Surveys Art of Wendell Castle,” Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, NY, December 23, 1990 (for the present lot illustrated)
Shirley M. Friedman, “Famed Artisan Exhibits Furniture: Castle’s Treasury,” Sunday Star Ledger, Newark, NJ, February 17, 1991 (for the present lot illustrated)
Michael Eilperin, “Agenda: Castle’s Craft,” Elle Décor, April 1991, p. 25 (for the present lot illustrated)
Todd Merrill and Julie V. Iovine, ed., Modern Americana: Studio Furniture from High Craft to High Glam, New York, 2008, p. 45 (for the present lot illustrated)
Vladimir Kagan and Beth Dunlop, “Reflections on Wendell Castle,” Modern Magazine, September 20, 2012, n.p. (for the present lot illustrated)
Emily Evans Eerdmans, Wendell Castle: A Catalogue Raisonné 1958-2012, New York, 2014, pp. 92-93, no. 122 (for the present lot illustrated)


Overall in very good condition. The desk and chair have remained in the same family since they were originally executed in 1965 and have been beautifully maintained. The vermillion wood surfaces of both the desk and chair are richly saturated and figured, displaying a beautiful variety of warm tones when seen in person. The forms of the desk and chair are highly sculptural, conveying Wendell's abilities with his signature stack-laminate technique. Both the desk and the chair with scattered light surface scratches and minor scuffing throughout, concentrated on the table top and feet, and consistent with age and gentle use. The back of the desk with two very thin hairline age cracks, stable, not visually distracting and consistent with the natural expansion and contraction of wood over time. The desk's proper left front foot with a very small loss to the bottom edge measuring approximately ¼ inch wide, consistent with age and gentle use. The chair's backrest with a thin hairline age crack to the stack measuring approximately 2 inches long, stable. The proper left front corner of the chair's seat with a very small edge loss measuring approximately ¼ inch wide. The chair's back foot presents with an area of very minor loss to the wood measuring ¼ inch wide, consistent with age and gentle use. The brass hinges of the desk with occasional light traces of brown surface residue. The two original sculptural keys designed by the artist are in very good functional condition, and present with slight darkening to the brass throughout consistent with age. One key with two very minute pitting holes, not visually distracting. The tip of both keys with an area of circumferential scuffing measuring approximately ¼ inch wide and consistent with gentle use. A second set of keys created for the model and offered with the lot also presents with slight darkening and scuffing; both keys with one broken decorative handle not affecting their functionality. This outstanding, highly sculptural Desk and Chair represents a seminal early work in the career of this famed American artist and woodworker. The artistry and exquisite execution exemplifies Castle's mastery of his craft.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

An Important "Vermillion" Desk and Chair by Wendell Castle

It 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 Opposite: Period photograph of Wendell Castle in his Rochester studio, circa 1966. Courtesy of the Castle Studios. 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.

GLENN ADAMSON is the Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and most recently the co-curator of Voulkos: The Breakthrough Years at the Museum of Art and Design (2015). His recent publications include Fewer Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects (2018); The Invention of Craft (2013); Postmodernism: Style and Subversion (2011); The Craft Reader (2010); and Thinking Through Craft (2007).