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Furniture for the (Well to Do) Art-Loving Masses


WASHINGTON — For more than 40 years, Wendell Castle has been a renowned furniture sculptor, marrying organic and geometric forms with wood and even molded plastic. Some of his one-of-a-kind pieces now fetch six figures, and those not privately owned are in such lofty venues as the Museum of Modern Art, the Renwick Gallery and the White House.

Now he's going for the (well-heeled) mass market. Again.

He tried home and office lines in the '70s and '80s, but they went nowhere. At 67, he's hoping the third time's the charm, with tables, chairs, stools, beds, benches, lamps and chests made in his Upstate New York factory. The Wendell Castle line is available at the San Francisco showroom of De Sousa Hughes. Castle is currently selecting a dealer for the Los Angeles area.

Castle cachet doesn't come cheap. An upholstered mahogany side chair runs $2,000, a bench $3,000, though that's far less than the $90,500 a Potomac, Md., couple recently dropped at Sotheby's for his 1978 wood coatrack with carved overcoat.

In the fall, the newest pieces, including a $10,160 queen-size platform bed with curved headboard for easy reading, will be available in California. We recently chatted over coffee with Castle and his wife, sculptor Nancy Jurs:

Question: How did you get interested in furniture design?

Answer: I studied sculpture in college but kind of accidentally ended up making furniture. In the studio, they had tools. The teacher said you have to make sculpture, but I didn't have furniture in my apartment, so I made a stool sculpture. It's not comfortable, but it is sitable. That was 1959, and the idea of sculptural furniture didn't exist.

Q: How has your work evolved?

A: I went to lamination, where I glued together a lot of layers of boards and shaped them into organic forms all through the '60s. Then I had a little break doing sculptured fiberglass pieces. . . . They had a limited appeal. In the 1970s, I got this idea of trompe l'oeil pieces [a wooden umbrella in its stand, a pair of gloves hanging over the edge of a table]. I made 15 or 20 of them. The most important is the Ghost Clock the Renwick owns. In the late '80s, I began to use color, disparate shapes. In the '90s, there was extremely sculptural furniture and quite a lot of tall sculptural clocks.

Q: Why did you return to commercial furniture production?

A: It's something I've had on my mind off and on over the years. Nancy pushed me to do it because there is a whole audience I am not reaching because of price. With one-of-a-kind, everything has to have my hands on it. It's appealing to think I could have developed some ideas that other people make for me. This bench would cost $25,000 (on commission) but $3,000 retail.

Q: How long do you spend designing production pieces?

A: Sometimes, I design in groups: a chair, a stool, a bench. That all should take maybe a month for design, development and prototype. This is not a licensed kind of approach. I am very involved throughout.

Q: What have you kept for yourself?

A: Some pieces that were, in a sense, rejects. They are perfectly all right, but the client never saw them because I just decided they were not appropriate, for whatever reason. Some things I have kept because I love them. I have a dining room table (a holly veneer top with purpleheart wood triangles and dots on conical, black, leather-wrapped legs). We used it all the time, and it got marred. I had to do work on it before it went to an exhibition, so now we use place mats.

Q: What is your favorite piece?

A: The one you are working on right now. The one you are finished with is gone.

Q: If, heaven forbid, you had a studio fire and could rescue just one thing--assuming Nancy was safe--what would it be?

A: After the dogs, my archives of 100,000 drawings. They are all very valuable to me. I am constantly coming up with ideas. With the drawings, I could remake some things.

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