For his collection of "art furniture," introduced in East Coast galleries last year, the 47-year-old sculptor has tailor-made such oddities as a coat-rack with a "sheepskin" jacket (all, including the buttons, in solid mahogany) and a hall shelf topped by a wooden newspaper and a fedora. "I've been trying for 15 years," Castle says, "to make furniture into art."
He has succeeded. Castle is one of the few living decorative artists whose work is on permanent display at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last summer he was invited to enter a desk in a show of American crafts at the Vatican. Finally, beginning May 3 his handicraft will tour the country as part of an exhibit entitled "New Handmade Furniture." Castle collectors include Muppet creator Jim Henson and wax tycoon Samuel Johnson.
Such buyers pay sums ranging from $800 for a simple chair to $14,000 for a love seat (sans nude). Less affluent Castle fans are now seeking barter deals. A real estate developer in Buffalo wants to trade Wendell an antique Rolls-Royce for a piece. And a Manhattan wholesale fish dealer has suggested exchanging $5,000 worth of caviar, shrimp or lobster for a Castle work. Both swaps are under serious consideration.
Besides art furniture, which has limited use ("Most folks feel uncomfortable sitting on a sofa next to a nude, even if it is wood"), Castle produces more functional works based on shapes in nature. A desk, for example, may branch out three feet from a tree-trunk-like base or a light may sprout from a dinner table. "My work is really derived from organic kinds of things—bones, shells, animal and plant forms," he says.
Wendell's inventiveness evolved slowly. The son of a vocational agriculture teacher in Kansas, he got a degree in industrial design at the University of Kansas—because his parents objected to his majoring in art. After a stint with a research firm designing a giant Baggie in case astronauts had to be buried in space ("I really didn't have my heart in it"), he returned to the U of K for a master's in sculpture. In 1962 he developed his furniture-making technique, a process that involves gluing and clamping one-inch wood slabs. (An explanatory text, The Complete Book of Laminating, will be published by the artist next year.) By 1977 he was into mammoth projects, such as designing a $100,000 spiral staircase in the Gannett publishing company office in Rochester.
Castle lives in nearby Scottsville, N.Y. with his second wife, Nancy Jurs, a potter, and daughter Alison, 5. Their rambling old house overlooking the Genesee River is filled with Castle designs and an expensive collection of modern art. Where did he get the paintings? Easy, he says. "I swapped them for furniture."
Psst. Want a nude woman on your sofa? Just call Wendell Castle. He can provide one for a mere $28,000. If the woman seems wooden and attached (literally) and the price steep, it's because she's hand-carved and this is art.