Photographer: Adam Reich/Courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist
Design

Robots Are Making Furniture That Costs $340,000

A look at the work of famed artist and designer Wendell Castle.

At first blush, the most interesting thing about artist Wendell Castle’s furniture is that you can actually use it as, well, furniture: There are spikes, there are columns, there are stacks of bulbous spheres, and yet—it’s made for your living room. It’s like going to see a Mark di Suvero exhibition and being told that no, those are not in fact sculptures, they’re jungle gyms.

Portrait of Wendell Castle seated on 'Long Night' (2011), 2013
Portrait of Wendell Castle seated on 'Long Night' (2011), 2013
Photographer: Adrien Millot/Courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

But then you get into how Castle actually makes the furniture, and it becomes a different conversation entirely.

Castle, who was born in 1932, is widely considered the father of what’s known as the American “art furniture” movement, an aesthetic best described as furniture you’re not sure you should sit on. His breakthrough came in the 1960s, when he introduced the use of stacked lamination, a process in which layers of wood were glued together to create elaborate shapes, which he then carved into precise forms.

Today, Castle’s methodology takes the same principle—stack wood, then carve it—to a whole new level.

An early work by Castle, Scribe's Stool, from 1961- 62

An early work by Castle, Scribe's Stool, from 1961- 62

Source: Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

The Process

First Castle, who's currently the subject of a solo show at New York’s Museum of Arts & Design, will start “the old fashioned way: with a pen and paper,” he says. He’ll sketch a design, and once he’s got something that “looks promising,” he’ll create a scale model out of foam. An assistant, one of nine full-time employees at his studio in Rochester, N.Y., then uses a laser scanner that inputs the model into the computer.

Model of 'Dining Table,' 2015 in Wendell Castle's studio
Model of 'Dining Table,' 2015 in Wendell Castle's studio
Photographer: Matt Wittmeyer/Courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

All par for the design course. Then things get really interesting. The computer prints out forms for each layer, so that once they cut the wood using the forms and stack the pieces of wood on top of one another, the object looks more or less like the finished product.

Castle then glues the wood layers together in order and creates what he calls “the tool path,” which is basically a computerized road map for his giant Swedish robot.

"Wendell Castle Remastered"
Photographer: Matt Wittmeyer/Courtesy of Friedman Benda and the artist/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

Ah yes, the robot.

“It’s one of the largest robots [of its kind] in the world,” Castle says. “It can reach 12 feet in any direction, which allows you to do very large things.”

Before he used computers (and robots), questions of scale were a moot point. His furniture was “smaller and less complex,” he says. “I had to estimate the cross-sections, and I was quite good at that, but up to a limit." With the introduction of technology to his work, he could dramatically increase the scale and intricacy of an object without worrying that it would take him a decade to complete. “It’s a combination of increasing your vocabulary and increasing your efficiency.”

Wendell Castle,
Wendell Castle, "Like a Dream"
Photographer: Matt Wittmeyer Photography/Courtesy of Friedman Benda
Installation view,
Installation view, "Wendell Castle Remastered", 2015
Photographer: Butcher Walsh/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design

Finishing Touches

Occasionally, the robot will come very close to finishing the piece completely, but “there's a human hand involved in all of them,” he says. “The robot could do 100 percent, but for us, with the skill level we have, it's easier to do it ourselves."

Castle makes about 30 pieces of furniture every year. Prices at his gallery Friedman Benda range from $75,000 for a wooden chair in a small edition to $340,000 for the massive bronze piece currently installed outside the Museum of Arts & Design on Columbus Circle.

“You get big-time collectors who have way more stuff than they can use,” Castle says. “But I believe for the most part that the furniture is in rooms—generally living rooms—and that the owners actually use it.”

Installation view,
Installation view, "Wendell Castle Remastered", 2015
Photographer: Butcher Walsh/Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design 

(Correction: The original version of the story misstated the price of a bronze installation. It is $340,000, not $350,000.) 

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