George Nakashima (1905-1990) Architect, Designer, Humanitarian, Woodworker.
by Louise Devenish
“For humankind the trees…their roots in the ground, their heads reaching into the sky…have seemed always to bind together the universe.”
So commences the forward to George Nakashima’s book “The Soul of a Tree”
And so aptly did George Nakashima fashion his life his feet firmly on the ground as he went about his daily work, his head ever seeking the truths of the universe , continually striving to make it a peaceful place for all Mankind, where we can live in harmony with each other, on a planet we respect and protect.
This is why Nakashima has become such a household name, an icon of the Twentieth Century. Not just a legacy of his beautiful timeless designs created in wood, but a greater legacy, that of his spirit which continues to live on through the work of “ The Nakashima Foundation for Peace.”
Born in Spokane, Washington, a “ Nisei”, or second generation Japanese- American he graduated from the University of Washington in 1929
after which, he was accepted into Harvard’s post graduate architectural program. However, he declined , preferring instead to study at MIT graduating with a Masters degree in Architecture.
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In 1933 He traveled to Paris. He met many young modernist artists like himself. After Paris he traveled to Japan where he immersed himself in the ancient designs and traditions of his cultural heritage; he was impressed with the way craftsman and artists integrated their new “avant-garde” designs with time honored techniques and construction methods.
In 1934 Nakashima went to work for Antonin Raymond, a Czech born US Modernist Architect working in Japan, who had assisted Frank Lloyd Wright in the building of “The Imperial Hotel in Tokyo”. Nakashima stayed in Japan until 1937, after which he traveled to Pondicherry, India where Raymond had a commission for a new dormitory for the Aurobindo Ashram. It was here that Nakashima oversaw construction and designed furniture for the facility, he also became a member of the Ashram and embraced their teachings.
In 1939 he returned to Japan where he met his future wife, Marion Okajima, an American of Japanese ancestry. They returned to America and were married in Los Angeles in 1941. Nakashima began making furniture part-time in Seattle.
The Attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, occurred in December 1941 and led the US to enter World War II. Sadly approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced to relocate to camps called “ War Relocation Camps” in remote parts of the nation’s interior. The Nakashima family was interned at Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho.
An archival photograph shows George Nakashima at work at the bench in a wood working shop helping construct homes and basic furnishings for all the many families there. The photograph is dated December 9th 1942 and is included in this profile .The camp closed in 1945.
It was during this time of great hardship that he was blessed with meeting a fellow Japanese American carpenter, who shared with him the secrets of time honored Asian construction methods and the use of Japanese Carpentry tools employing the simplest materials available in their confinement. The lessons learnt at the camp were to remain with Nakashima throughout his career and became his undeniable signature, that of Humility, Perfection, Precision, Balance and Harmony. He was profoundly aware that a higher being was responsible for his talent and inspiration , and it was to that power that he dedicated his work (this is why in his early career he never signed his work).
In 1943 Antonin Raymond now living in New Hope Pennsylvania after Japan, sponsored the release of the Nakashima family, so they were able to leave the interment camp and went to live on Raymond’s farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Nakashima slowly embarked on his lifelong passion of designing and crafting furniture and building architectural structures (which eventually included designing and setting up his own furniture studios at Aquetong Road in New Hope, Pennsylvania).
Today the Family continues to produce superior studio furniture not only in the tradition of the Patriarch, but also the new and exciting designs of his Harvard trained architect daughter, Mira Nakashima. Mira supervises the workshop, as well as presides over “The Nakashima Foundation for Peace” with George’s son Kevin.
During the post war years Nakashima made furniture for local families or those just visiting the country to escape the stifling New York summers. He used woods indigenous to Pennsylvania such as Cherry and Walnut. His fame and business flourished and he started to add new lines to his furniture designs. Throughout his life he only ever worked exclusively in wood. He had no desire to experiment like his contemporaries with other materials. He was a purist exploring the organic expressiveness of wood, choosing well figured timbers with burls and fissures, joining them together with his signature of butterfly keys in contrasting exotic woods.
Twice in his career he collaborated with two furniture manufacturers, with “Knoll” in 1946, where he first met, and became friends with Isamu Noguchi, and “Widdicomb” in 1958. The problem with both these ventures was that solid planks of wood were replaced by veneers and the “ free edge”; following the contour of the wood innovated by Nakashima, was not employed in manufactured pieces, thus compromising his aesthetic. The key to Nakashima furniture is that though employing modern technology it is predominately produced by and dependent upon, the handicraft of men and not on that of machines.
One of Nakashima’s greatest contributions to Twentieth Century Design in the 1960’s was the introduction of his “Conoid” furniture, so named after his “Conoid” Studio with its shell shaped roof, where he designed his furniture. His Conoid chair design is a masterpiece with its dramatic cantilever design having only two legs and sled runners that allowed the chair to be moved easily over carpeted surfaces.
At the time of his death in 1990, he worked for some of the wealthiest and most important families in America including Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Throughout his life he greatly admired the ethics and simplicity of design produced by The Shakers in the 19th century. We see this parallel in Nakashima’s attention to detail and his lack of ornamentation. The beauty he saw was in the form and in the wood itself, and the properties of the various woods; such as using Hickory wood, as the Colonists had done, for his spindle back chairs because of its light flexible nature that comfortably responded to the contours of the back. Nakashima’s practicality was “Shaker like”. He would make all possible uses of the wood including the re-cycling of ancient tree roots into new coffee tables, and even the use of sap wood pieces, which were often discarded by cabinetmakers, but were incorporated into his designs by book matching pieces with sap wood.
Nakashima’s genius lies in his marrying The Eastern aesthetic, and traditional construction methods , together with the aesthetic form, and designs of Early Colonial America. By taking the best of both worlds he has left us an enduring legacy and vocabulary of beautiful, timeless, classical pieces. The exceptional craftsmanship, materials, and designs of this extraordinary artist, are what makes his furniture so sought after, and why it commands such a high price in today’s competitive market.
How wise and how perfect were his last wishes that there should be
a “Peace Altar” in all six continents of the world where peoples of all religions and persuasion could meet and communicate, contributing towards a mutual love, harmony and industry throughout nations not just for our generation, but for all future generations to come.
Partly autobiographical, partly a how-to book for George Nakashima's single literary opus has inspired
generations of architects, furniture-makers, and collectors around the world. In this lavishly illustrated volume,
George Nakashima gives us an intimate look at his artistry, philosophy, and personal history.
Nature, Form, and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima by Mira Nakashima
An Intimate Portrait of Renowned Furniture Designer George Nakashima.
Acclaimed furniture designer George Nakashima made boldly original pieces prized for their superb