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Wendell Castle: Creative Childhood Player and Master Furniture Designer

Fun for me is talking with people at the top of their field, finding out how they got there, and hearing them trace the roots of their fascination. I like a good chat about the whys and wherefores of being a person who has fundamentally changed how we think about something.

With just such a conversation in mind, I recently headed to the bucolic, village of Scottsville, New York, to meet with Wendell Castle, the restless innovator and trailblazer of the sixties and seventies American Furniture movement. At 79, Castle continues to explore new dimensions in his quest to unite the sensibilities of a sculptor with those of a furniture maker. I asked him to talk about his early years.

“I get bored easily,” Castle said, “which is a good thing. And maybe I have a short attention span, but I don’t really want to do the same thing. I want to keep looking for something else. I’ve never been satisfied with anything I did. I want to keep trying new things.”

“Were you like this as a child?” I asked.

Having grown up in Kansas in the 1930’s, Castle believes he acted like every other kid in his neighborhood. He played board games and built with Erector sets. He joined his friends outdoors to play cowboys and Indians. At his father’s insistence, he joined 4-H Club. Around this time, his father also gave him a heifer to raise, but Castle showed little interest in the animal or agriculture. Instead, he enjoyed drawing and building three-dimensional projects. His neighbor taught him to use tools, and Castle was good at it.

“When it came to doing projects of any kind, like building a tree house or a soap box racer, I was the one in charge. I knew how to do it better than anybody else. I understood things that other kids might not have, like engineering principles, how strong something has to be to hold you, and how far out you can take something without it tumbling. I just did all those things really well, intuitively. It didn’t mean much. I thought, ‘well, that’s that.’”

Despite Castle’s natural talent for three-dimensional thinking, this is a unique trait. People who possess strong visual-spatial abilities demonstrate an immense capacity to form mental images and to play with these in their mind’s eyes. For them it comes easy to imagine all sides of an object, turn it around in their head, or flip it upside down to look at it from underneath. They often don’t understand that others can’t do this as well.

Castle’s abilities reminded me of what Psychologist Carl Jung’s said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” A person exercises his visual-spatial abilities when daydreaming, imagining, and visualizing, and Castle confessed he did a lot of all three. He loved to play with ideas. He said, “Where I was creative as a youngster was in daydreaming. I would imagine myself doing all kinds of things—being a band leader, director of a jazz orchestra, driving a race car, or working for a car company designing how cars look.”

When Castle graduated from the University of Kansas in 1961 with a master’s degree in fine arts, he knew a great deal about architecture, industrial design, and sculpture, but he lacked formal training in furniture making. While trying to make it in New York City’s art circles, he fell short of funds for sculpting in bronze and turned to wood, an inexpensive, readily available material. With wood, Castle let loose and played with his ideas. At first, his transformation of concepts into designs challenged the field’s traditional understanding of furniture and sculpture, but he had discovered his passion. In 2010, when the Rochester Institute of Technology inducted Castle into their inaugural class of the Innovation Hall of Fame, he received recognition “as one of the top 10 designers in the world.”

On the day I visited his studio, Castle was wrestling with his newest ideas. Pausing for a last reflection he said, “Art programs, in large part, don’t do any good because they try to tell you about the traditional way to do things.” Instead, he recommended, “when it comes to art, act your shoe size! Children have no real preconceptions about what tradition has said things should look like. And if you don’t have a predisposed idea about what things are supposed to look like, then your creative sense comes out and you can make it any way you want.”

With that, it was time for me to go. Home, maybe, to get out those acrylic paints I used to love working with but never did make time for formal training.