Art is meant to be viewed, but furniture is meant to be touched. A space is defined by its appearance, but we are always in physical contact with the edges of space as well, with the walls and floors. Furniture is like an inside-out building. Whereas buildings contain us within them, furniture holds us suspended around itself like orbiting moons, as our fingers trace the surface of tables, as we sit on chairs and our legs slide under desks, and our hands reach up to shelves and into drawers. We appreciate the appearance of furniture on the pages of catalogs or on the showroom floor, but it isn’t until our paths intersect with the pieces in daily life that we begin to understand their nuances, the finer aspects of their design and construction that make them more than sculpture, but interactive shapings of space.
And so it was with a frustrated desire to touch that I merely viewed the Wendell Castle Remastered exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design. Wendell Castle’s extraordinarily cantilevered chairs and desks, and the fine finishing of the wood-laminate work just begs to be experienced with hands and body–to be sat on, to be used as a surface for writing, eating, or simply to place one’s weight upon, to be used as the outer boundaries of one’s existence.
Pieces like Scribe’s Stool walk the fine line between artistic sculpture and functional furniture. Anyone who has ever picked up a pen would likely be interested to see how their writing pose is shaped while sitting in this stool. Table-Chair-Stool combines multiple functions in one long branch, and the fine scratches I could make out along the seat was a taunt that the piece was actually made as furniture, and others had enjoyed the privilege to use it as such. Perhaps Serpentine Floor Lamp was the only piece that was actually in use in the exhibit, as it was equipped with a light bulb and switched on, reminding the viewer of the non-physical functional aspects of furniture as well. Walnut Sculpture was one of the several pieces of pure sculpture in the exhibition, having that redundant information in its title to remind us of the difference. But the instinct was the same upon viewing it–I wanted to reach out and let my hand trace its surfaces, to feel how it might shape space in the same way, as an appliance in space, not just as decoration.
The show is a retrospective, reflecting upon the range of Castle’s work from the 1960s through today, and how the artist’s own touch upon the work has changed. Whereas the early work was sculptured from stacks of laminated wood entirely with hand tools, now Castle primarily uses computer-controlled routing machines as well as 3D modeling software to create his weight defying constructions. As he explains in a documentary film projected in the exhibition, as he gets older, his ability to use a chisel for hours on end is lessened, but he has learned to use newly-developed software and fabrication machinery. Rather than a crutch or a compensation, these tools enable him to make new forms that wouldn’t have been possible earlier in his career. This triple evolution of artist, tool, and work is visible across the work in the exhibition, a natural growth, abundantly apparent in the aesthetic of the pieces, and inscrutably alluring. The intimate network reaches out to the viewer, begging them to step up and take part in this shaping of space, as user, if not creator. The definitional boundary between furniture and sculpture does not, in the end, matter. The quality of the pieces stem from this desire to interact. The work invites the viewer to step into its space, and absorb its qualities in as many dimensions as possible.
Top image: Table-Chair-Stool, 1968, Wendell Castle. Installation view, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Wendell Castle-Wandering Forms-Works from 1959-1979, October 19, 2012-February 24, 2013. Afromosia and African hardwoods. Table-Chair: 26-3/4 x 115-3/4 x 35 in. (67.9 x 294 x 88.9 cm) Stool: 16-5/8 x 16-1/4 x 14-5/8 in. (42.2 x 41.3 x 37.1 cm). Museum of Arts and Design, gift of the Johnson Wax Company, through the American Craft Council, 1977. Photo courtesy of Sherry Griffin/R & Company © Wendell Castle, Inc.