NEW YORK — Dubbed the “father of the American studio furniture movement,” Wendell Castle (1932-2018) created innovative furniture designs that are highly coveted today. He also didn’t restrict himself to wood as a medium. His legacy lies in his craftsmanship, use of unusual materials and always challenging himself to produce work that pushed the boundaries of what furniture could be.
Auctioneer David Rago of Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey still recalls the first Castle piece he ever saw, about 40 years ago: the so-called ‘ghost clock’ in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., indicative of the designer’s trompe l’oeil work. “It is as though someone had a grandfather clock and threw a sheet over it. You can see some of the details through the ‘sheet,’ but it was all carved wood,’ he said.
In the ensuing years, Rago has seen and sold hundreds of Castle’s works. “As far as the market for Wendell Castle goes, he worked for so long and in so many different styles that it is almost as though this single artist has multiple submarkets,” he said. Castle is renowned for his stack-laminated pieces, but he also worked with acrylics, resins and metals. Brightly colored fiberglass furniture began popping up in the 1960s, such as a jet black Swivel Molar coffee table in gel-coated fiberglass that made $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Wright. Molar chairs in canary yellow, white, and green have also performed well.
“He wasn’t as severe about using wood only. Most wood artists use wood; they might paint it or stain it, but they use wood,” Rago said. “He had no problem mixing different materials into what he was producing to get whatever varied effects he was looking for.”
Arguably Castle’s most desirable creations are the stack-laminated furnishings that he made by hand in the 1960s and 1970s. “His best work is the stack-laminated period: organic, inventive and extraordinary, spanning the line between fine art and decorative art,” Rago said. The stack-laminated technique offered the artist flexibility and allowed him to exert a large degree of control over the shape and form a piece took.
One of the finest examples from this period was a custom dining table in cherry, dated 1976, which attained $125,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Rago. “In its beginnings, this sculptural approach to furniture making was unprecedented, and it came to define his pivotal role as a leader in the field,” wrote the Museum of Arts and Design in New York of Castle’s stack-laminated technique when it mounted an exhibition of his work in 2015-2016. Building up dynamic forms out of thick boards, he created highly sculptural furniture.
Though he worked with other materials, Castle was in top form when it came to pure wood. The richness of the walnut shines through in a large sled-form armchair from 2010, christened Mephistopheles, which attained $160,188 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2021 at Tajan. The chair challenges the conventions of the form, redefining the typical square-like shape of chair bases.
The market always has ups and downs, but for artists such as Castle, prices have held steady and even climbed in recent years. “We’ve never not been able to sell his work for decent money,” Rago said. “With some of the later work, the market is less predictable, but every time we sell a piece of stack-laminated furniture, there are people on it.”
Castle’s later work is typically in the $5,000-$25,000 range, with some exceptions for sublime pieces, while stack-laminated pieces start around $50,000-$75,000 and can sell for around $200,000, Rago explained, adding, “If we are going to use the market as an arbiter of quality and taste, then it certainly speaks in that way.”
A case in point is a carved and stained ash chair named Tell the Trees. This custom 2013 chair may have been late in Castle’s career, but it performed well, with collectors driving the price to $140,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Rago.
Another later machine-worked piece of furniture that enjoyed a strong result was a Too Soon walnut chair dating to 2005, which earned $60,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2021 at Hindman. “He worked in so many different styles and then he went back to stack-laminated later on,” Rago said. “The last thing he was doing were great stack-laminated pieces using the routing machine. I saw the machine in his studio, and to my surprise, in spite of these later laminate pieces not having the same level of hand work, it did not seem to hold prices back. People pay a lot of money for those pieces.”
Castle revisited popular forms from the 1960s and 1970s but instead of crafting these pieces by hand, he employed newly available digital technologies to mill them more efficiently. “Although several of his tables and chairs from the 1960s emanate from a tree-like base, Too Soon marks the first instance of Castle using branch-like ramifications to create separate supports for a surface and a seat. This work also explores a new typology for Castle, using cut-out voids to depict negative space,” according to Hindman’s catalog notes.
Even Castle’s decorative objects were treated like furniture, such as a custom chandelier that practically glows, with its highly polished surface accentuating the cherry wood grain. Designed for a private home in 1976, this fixture brought $90,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Rago.
Another important example is The Check’s in the Mail, a custom dining table that outperformed its high estimate of $35,000 to take $57,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Neue Auctions. Boasting unusual decoration, the 1988 table has leather edges and an oval top in holly veneer inlaid with purpleheart triangles and dots spelling the phrase The Check’s in the Mail.
Castle’s output spanned decades, and within each decade, he delivered different styles to entice new audiences. His work continues to be collected for its innovation, whimsy and craftsmanship.