Wendell Castle’s “Chest of Drawers”

#RStories

“The Chest with the strange drawer pulls has a conventional body set upon a number of writhing, upended cobra-like, or tendril forms that extend the height of the chest and then wave into the air.” A Rochester critic wrote these words in a review of Wendell Castle’s exhibition at a local gallery in 1965.  It was the public debut of one of Castle’s most important works, a design which visibly marks the departure of a young artist from the formal modern art he was making, to a new fusion of furniture and sculpture.

In 1962, Wendell Castle, the sculptor, accepted the position of Associate Professor of Furniture Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, succeeding the Danish designer Tage Frid, in a bold move made to shake up the philosophy of RIT’s School of American Craftsmen.  Years later, Castle wrote in his guidebook to lamination:

“Nowhere is the limitation of traditional furniture making more poignant than that style popularly called “Danish modern.” Hardly had the craze for this type of furniture peaked in the late fifties than it showed signs of exhaustion. Why? Mainly because the Danish modern was conceived of in terms of a plan and elevation—it was given a front view, a side view, and a back view. In contrast to the almost unlimited possibilities open to those who work in laminated forms, there remained for the Scandinavian designers no real opportunity to explore such promising areas in design as continuity of surface and sculptured form.”

The Chest of Drawers is on view in our current exhibition at 64 White Street Wendell Castle and the “Quiet Revolution” paired with an example of one of Castle’s sculptures from 1962.  It is plain to see that with Chest of Drawers, Castle is quite literally depicting the midcentury modern case, here being invaded by the serpentine tentacles of his biomorphic sculpture. Or perhaps it is the other way around, with the chest of drawers being liberated from orthodox modernism by the natural world, made possible by lamination.  One of Castle’s first pieces made in RIT’s workshops, Chest of Drawers features dovetail joinery made by his student Doug Sigler.  Castle was open with his students and colleagues in seeking their advice in order to execute his vision. He was bringing a sculptor’s sensibility to furniture, and he was benefitting from the tools and expertise of his new community. 

The original design of Chest of Drawers featured six legs, as seen in a period studio photograph. In 1966 Castle added five more “writhing” supports, both for structural and aesthetic reasons. Paul Smith, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, (who gave Castle his first big museum break by including him in Young Americans 1962, which led to the faculty appointment at RIT) included him in Fantasy Furniture. This exhibition featured the surrealist designs of Pedro Friedeberg and Fabio de Sanctis, among others.  Photographs of the piece in this exhibition can be seen in our recently published Wendell Castle: Scrapbook, a facsimile of a scrapbook made for Wendell Castle by his wife, Nancy Jurs. 

 Chest of Drawers was acquired by Paul Smith for the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 1966, where it remained until 1987, when the institution (then known as the American Craft Museum) deaccessioned it in a fundraising auction at Sotheby’s. Since then it has been exhibited in two of Castle’s most important museum retrospectives, Furniture by Wendell Castle (1989) and Wendell Castle: Wandering Forms – Works from 1959-1979 (2012).