Important Design

Important Design

View full screen - View 1 of Lot 209. Unique Floor Lamp.

Property of a Private English Collector

Wendell Castle

Unique Floor Lamp

Auction Closed

December 8, 09:48 PM GMT


250,000 - 350,000 USD

Lot Details


Property of a Private English Collector

Wendell Castle

Unique Floor Lamp


stack-laminated walnut, glass

monogrammed W.C. and later dated 70

91¾ in. (233 cm) high

36 in. (91.4 cm) maximum diameter

Collection of Wendell Castle and Nancy Jurs
George Lindemann, Miami Beach, Florida
Johnson Trading Gallery, New York
R & Company, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Talis Bergmanis, "Scottsville Craftsman Creates Useable Sculpture," Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, October 27, 1968, front cover (for the present lot illustrated)
Anne Ogden, "Designing Their Own Lifestyle," House Beautiful, June 1973, n.p. (for the present lot illustrated)
Alastair Gordon, Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms - Works from 1959-1979, exh. cat., The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut, 2012, p. 86 (for a period photograph of Wendell Castle with the present lot illustrated)
Emily Evans Eerdmans, Wendell Castle: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1958-2012, New York, 2014, pp. 22 (for a period photograph of the present lot illustrated in the Lee Nordness Gallery, 1968) and 82, fig. II.75 (for the present lot illustrated)
Handcrafted Furniture by Wendell Castle - New York Debut, Lee Nordness Gallery, New York, April 9-27, 1968

A Twist in the Tale

By Glenn Adamson

When Lee Nordness met Wendell Castle, in 1966 or so, he saw sheer possibility. At the time, Nordness was one of the movingest, shakingest figures on the New York gallery scene, up to that moment primarily a specialist in painting. A few years earlier he’d charmed his way into curating a touring exhibition called Art: USA: Now, supported by Johnson Wax (already famous for their patronage of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had created their Racine headquarters just before World War II). Though not necessarily at the cutting edge – 1962 was a bit late to be championing the rise of American abstraction – Nordness’s show was a great success, touring to several American cities, as well as London, Tokyo, Paris, Vienna, and elsewhere abroad. It cemented Nordness’s reputation as an impresario and also, his collaborative relationship with the Johnson family, among the leading corporate art patrons of the day. But it was Castle who helped Nordness see that he could do something truly unprecedented: to create a platform for a whole new domain in the arts.

The result, of course, was Objects: USA, the omnibus exhibition that defined the postwar craft movement. Operationally, it was essentially a reprise of Art: USA: Now, with Nordness as curator-spokesman and Johnson Wax as lead funder. Paul J. Smith, director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, was an additional creative partner. But it was really Castle who provided the template for the project. His total reinvention of the possibilities of woodworking – “as near sculpture as possible while still remaining functional,” as Nordness put it – so inspired the dealer that he commissioned Castle to totally refurnish his New York apartment. The culmination of the two men’s relationship – a preview of what Objects: USA would achieve – was a spectacular one-man show for Castle at Nordness’s galley, in 1968.

The present standing lamp was included in that exhibition, and it embodies Castle’s artistic ambitions in no uncertain terms. Made the previous year, it was one of a group of related designs that Castle had initiated with his Serpentine Floor Lamp (1965-67), which features a sinuously carved tail, and continuing to a series of lamps of similar height, of which this walnut version is the second and most successful. In a remarkably compressed way, Castle manages to allude both to industrial and organic form - the base evokes a turbine fan, the shade a gingko leaf – while also flexing his sculptural muscles, achieving a powerfully torqued, insistently vertical gesture.

The lamp occupies an intriguing position within the larger progression of Castle’s career, beginning with his famed, monumental Library Sculpture of 1965, which features a similar flaring totemic form at its center. The lamp’s graceful, inwardly folding lines also foreshadow those of his 1985 trompe l’oeil Ghost Clock, the beloved centerpiece of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, which (among its other qualities) alludes cleverly to classical drapery. And his late gesamtkunstwerk A New Environment (2012), he positioned a lamp of very different form – three ovoids, suspended in a conjoined tumble – standing free at one end, another sculptural declaration of independence.

In fact, such strong, singular, vertical forms are rare in Castle’s oeuvre, unless (as in the Library Sculpture) he was using them to anchor other compositional elements. His compositional instincts were more grounded, often involving inventively multiple ways of meeting the floor. The 1967 lamp is thus an unusual opportunity to encounter Castle’s sculptural idiom face to face, as it were, the object greeting your own upright form.

And as so often in Castle’s work, the more you look the more you see. A line of crisp articulation courses sinuously around the form, rising up from the base, wrapping itself around the shaft as it rises, and finally defining the shade. That upper register comes into its own when the lamp is illuminated, the shaped mass of the wood contrasting with the ethereally glowing glass globe nestled within.

The lamp’s most striking detail, though, is the shift in orientation in Castle’s trademark stack lamination – horizontal at the top, vertical at the bottom. This should not be mistaken for a simple technical necessity. This was indeed the logical way for him to achieve the conical form of the shade, and the separation of the base into three discrete blades. (The other standing lamps in the series share the same construction.) But the ninety-degree rotation of the laminations also emphasizes the design’s formal logic, emphasizing the generous outward sweep of the lampshade, and the forceful upward thrust of the lamp, as if it were a finned rocket achieving takeoff. The elegant twist in the lamp’s shaft is a nuanced way to harmonize these two opposing compositional ideas – a great example of Castle’s instinctive spatial draftsmanship.

Though the lamp is not figural in any literal sense, it is instructive to compare it to sculpture that similarly engages with bodily orientation and scale – for example, the Upright Motive series (1955-56) by Henry Moore, an artist whom Castle particularly admired, and who had a similarly lateral, landscape-oriented sensibility. As their title implies, the Upright Motive sculptures were an anomaly in Moore’s career, a direct engagement with the typology of the classical figure on a base. In the series, he complicates the usual relationship between the “work” and its nominally supplemental pedestal, with abstract embellishments that traverse the length of the composition – just as in Castle’s lamp. 

While Castle may or may not have known these particular works, it is certain that he paid close attention to the way that Moore, and before him Constantin Brancusi, handled such dynamics. His self-invented vocation as a sculptural furniture-maker forced into plain view what had been tacit in modernism – the participation of abstract sculpture in its environment, becoming a motif within a domestic space, or any larger arrangement. For most in Castle’s own generation, this seemed like a liability to be overcome. But he (and Nordness, too) knew better. We are only now, nearly four years after his passing, fully coming to terms with Castle’s art historical stature – the transformation to familiar narratives that his work represents. He saw all that furniture could bring to sculpture, the way that issues like functionality, and recognizable typologies like chairs, desks and lamps, could establish a common ground between everyday life and pure form. This lamp he made in 1967, then, is illuminating. In every sense of the word.