Wendell Castle has been a pioneering spirit in product design for over 50 years. Just don’t call him an icon 

First featured in Issue 04
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He may be known as the father of the American studio furniture movement, but Wendell Castle baulks at the suggestion that he is a design icon. ‘I have been doing this a long time,’ he demurs; ‘perhaps that’s what makes people consider you an icon.’ 

However you refer to him, there’s little argument that Castle has consistently challenged the boundaries of functional design over the past 50 years. A master craftsman who has pioneered techniques enabling him to shape materials including wood into sculptural, organic forms, Castle can be a controversial figure among those who believe you should take your cues from nature when working with its materials. ‘I do not let the wood dictate the shape,’ he says, categorically. ‘We stick very closely to my original concept.’ 

Still sticking to his daily routine of designing and making well into his 80s, Castle attributes the longevity of his career to a strong work ethic instilled in him by his father, whose own parents lived through the Great Depression as farmers in the Midwest. ‘Today I worked on a model of a double chair and an environmental piece,’ he answers, when asked what he’s been up to on the day of our interview. He is a walking advertisement for the benefits of hard graft: ‘My work, absolutely, keeps me young,’ he says. 

An instantly recognisable figure, Castle may no longer resemble the sixth member of The Band as he did in the 1960s – with his beard, his trademark wide-brimmed hat and his cowboy boots worn with a suit or double denim – but he still cuts quite a dash. The beard may now be white and more neatly trimmed, but he can still swing his chainsaw with all the poise of a rock star. Not that he is – or ever was – wedded to the old ways. ‘I embrace technology,’ he says. ‘We digitise models, use a computer, and have a large machining robot.’ 

Indeed, looking at his early work, which still informs his designs today, it seems tailor-made for the modern, CAD approach. If anything, it’s amazing to think that these perfectly finished forms had no computer assistance when he was starting off. ‘I think I got it right quite early on,’ he says. ‘My recent work definitely pays tribute to the past, but the vocabulary is very different. 

Digital technology is also a very important component in the creation of my new work.’ Having lived and worked through an incredible period of change in the industry from the mid-20th century, Castle can bear witness to the improvements that technology have brought to his craft. ‘I believe that the market has changed dramatically, for the good, along with the way we work.’ 

That said, there is no doubt that Castle is every inch the craftsman. ‘The process of making is where the real excitement is,’ he enthuses. ‘Many aspects of the work give me a warm feeling, but the design struggles make me the most content.’ 

To that end, he has famously published a series of ‘adopted rules of thumb’ – which serve as a fascinating insight into both his modus operandi (‘After learning the tricks of the trade, don’t think you know the trade’) as well as his dry humour (‘Jumping to conclusions is not exercise’). Does he find his rules have altered over the years? ‘My “rules of thumb” have increased,’ he admits; ‘I must have about 50 now.’ 

What is remarkable is that, for the main part, he made the rules up himself. ‘I had a good art education, with numerous teachers encouraging me,’ he says, speaking of his huge pride in the recent honorary degree of Doctor of Arts awarded to him by his alma mater, The University of Kansas. ‘Although as a furniture artist, I am self-taught. I had no formal training in the design or making of furniture.’ 

A fan of classic design as well as a creator of it (‘I collect British sports cars’), he identifies two designers who most excite him: ‘From a technical standpoint, Joris Laarman, and from a design point of view, Ron Arad.’ 

For someone who applies breathtaking form to function, and whose work sits just as comfortably in a gallery as a home, it seems appropriate to ask if he sees his work as art. ‘I do see a distinction between art and craft,’ he says, ‘but occasionally that distinction is very blurred.’ Time for Castle to impart one last piece of wisdom. What’s the best lesson he’s learned in all these years? ‘Show up!’  If there’s one thing about Castle that everyone can agree on, it’s this: he’s always shown up. 

Wendell Castle Remastered at the Museum of Arts and Design, New York until 28.02.16

Photographs Martin Crook
Words Mark Hooper 

Special thanks to Evan Snyderman