IN the mind and hands of Wendell Castle, the most familiar household objects (clocks, tables, chairs) become works of art. Mr. Castle makes art furniture, but he makes it in a way that leads people to think about how they see furniture, to rediscover the shape and function of something they basically take for granted. ``Furniture should not be derived from furniture,'' he once said. ``This only leads to variations of existing themes.''
Castle has long been in the business of coming up with new themes in furniture design. Many people consider his work and his teaching have helped fuel the the renaissance in this field today.
For 25 years, he has been in the vanguard of fine woodworking and furniture design in this country. Major museums -- such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art -- have acquired his work over this period, as have private collectors.
Castle's workshop is in Scottsville, N.Y., a small town just south of Rochester. The Wendell Castle Workshop operates in the venerable artist's-workshop tradition. Castle is the master of the shop and he is uniquely responsible for the designs, but he works with eight other highly trained woodworkers.
Beneath his workbench -- covered with a fine layer of sawdust, as is everything else -- is a small notebook. In it Castle quickly jots down his ideas as sketches. Once he is satisfied with a drawing, it is tacked on the workshop wall beside his bench. With relatively simple pieces, these drawings are all his staff needs to execute his idea. More complicated pieces might demand a full, to-scale rendering of the work.
Castle's early work -- from 1963 through the mid-1970s -- drew ideas from abstract, organic forms. Legs for tables were undulating waves; seats on chairs were deep, body-cradling cavities. Two years ago this winter, Castle began his most ambitious project to date: a series of 13 clocks.
Each clock is a working timepiece as well as a piece about time, ranging in height from approximately five feet to eight feet high. The materials Castle used and the level of craftsmanship involved are as essential as scale to the clocks' visual impact. Rare and exotic woods, some naturally colored, others with striking grain patterns, have been combined with metals, leather, even mother-of-pearl.
Castle has just begun a new series, which he calls, at least for now, ``funky tables.'' Two from the projected series of 15 were recently exhibited in Rochester, N.Y. One, entitled Candy Dreams, has a gently curved and twisted top; the other, When We Are Apart, is bowed.
Castle's clocks will be on exhibition through May 11 at the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. An abbreviated version of this show, with six clocks and a number of the ``funky tables,'' will be seen this summer, July 12-Sept. 21, at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester. The ``funky tables'' are scheduled for a summer showing, June 14-July 16, at Alexander Milliken Inc. in New York City.