Who is George Nakashima?
Considered one of the greatest innovators of 20th century furniture design, and the father of the American craft movement, today we’re going to be delving into his life in some detail to give you a picture of how this man changed the face of American furniture history forever.
George Nakashima (中島勝寿) was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, to Katsuharu and Suzu Nakashima. As a member of the Boy Scouts, Nakashima found a connection to the natural world at a young age, taking long walks and hikes through beautiful woodlands and natural landscapes. It was a passion which continued throughout his career and his work was an embodiment of that connection.
After enrolling in an Architecture course and receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1929, and went on to study a masters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1931 he made one of the most defining decisions of his life, by selling his car and buying a round-the-world ticket on a steamship.
Travelling and Raymond
After spending a year in France living the life of a bohemian traveller, he moved on to North Africa and Japan. While in Japan, he met Antonin Raymond, a protégé of the world renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
While working from Raymond’s firm in Tokyo, Nakashima toured Japan extensively, studying the subtleties of Japanese architecture, design, and their lifestyle: particularly their attitude to detail, craft and their relationship with their creations. He took time to learn new skills, and spent his free time learning woodworking techniques from master craftsmen. It was a period in his life of adventure and exploration, where he absorbed all there was to offer. It was also around this time when he met Marion Okajima, who would later become his wife
In 1937, Raymond’s company was commissioned to build a dormitory at an ashram in Puducherry, India for which Nakashima was the primary construction consultant. It was here that Nakashima made his first foray furniture. During his stay, he became a disciple of the guru Sri Aurobindo and learnt Integral Yoga. The passion and discipline that he showed towards the teachings earned him the name ‘sundarananda’, which in Sanskrit translates to ‘one who delights in beauty’. The practice had a lasting impact both on his life and his work, and the influences can be seen in his designs.
It was after all of this spiritual expansion and exploration, that George cemented the belief of the necessity to remove desire to promote one’s individual ego from the creative process, and to devote work each day to the divine. It was a concept contrary to mainstream western culture and it remains a core principle of his disciples and studio to this day.
Returning to the United States in the early 1940s, Nakashima compared architectural practice the architectural practice around him with the careful craft methods of Oriental building, and decided that architecture could not be his life’s work. He resolved to, “get into something that I (he) could handle from beginning to end.”
Believing that design in architecture or furniture begins with materials and structure, and that design is proved in the making of a thing, he felt that as a builder of furniture he could maintain his standards of design and craftsmanship. It was then that he decided to commit to furniture as his career and he began to make, as well as teach, woodworking.
Unfortunately for George, his new life didn’t last long. In 1941, the United States declared war with the empire of Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Like others of Japanese ancestry, he and his family were interned during the Second World War and sent to Camp Minidoka, Idaho, in March 1942.
At the camp he met Gentaro (sometimes spelled Gentauro) Hikogawa, a man trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. It was under his tutelage, Nakashima learned to master traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. Perhaps more significantly, he began to approach woodworking with even more discipline and patience, striving for perfection in every stage of construction.
Luckily for George and his family, Antonin Raymond managed to sponsor their release from the camp in 1943 and invited him to his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
It was here in Raymond’s studio and workshop at New Hope, that Nakashima explored the organic expressiveness of wood, and began choosing boards with knots, burrs and figured grain. Appreciating each board for its individuality, and unique qualities.
With the $100 he had left, Nakashima set up his own workshop on land in New Hope, where he had began to see an emergence of artistic talent, and decided to attack his furniture career with the same fervour, and passion that he had on his return to the States.
Nakashima formed a close working relationship with all of his clients; the wooden boards he used were often handpicked for the individual, and signed with their name, connecting each work to a specific time and place.
Among Nakashima’s most significant clients were Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, for whom he designed more than 200 pieces for their home in Pocantico Hills, New York. The pieces were, at the time, the largest collection of Nakashima’s work in private hands. The sale shone a spotlight on Nakashima and his work and propelled his work to top of the New York socialites’ shopping list.
For decades, his Bucks County workshop could hardly keep up with the demand for his pieces. While some of his work fetched more than $10,000, he did not advertise or expand.
Although Nakashima and his work had become more and more popular, making a profit was never the end goal. Overriding every other intention, was the feeling that “craftsmanship is not only a creative force, but a moral idea … design is only something to realize a way of life.”
One aspect of this way of life is to provide quality.
“ We feel that we should give value.… We follow these precepts of doing a good job which is rather important in our age.”
In the simple forms he designed, Nakashima placed emphasis on the best use of a beautiful piece of timber. He worked “from the characteristics of the material and methods of construction outwards, to produce an integrated and honest object.”
He combined his passion for detail, and high skill level, with his deep-rooted respect and ardour for wood, to create simple, pure, and elegant pieces.
Drawing on Japanese designs and shop practices, as well as on American and International Modern styles, Nakashima created a body of work that would make his name synonymous with the best of 20th century American art furniture.
With his studio established, Nakashima soon entered into a working relationship with Knoll, a promising but less than a decade-old company. It was Raymond who arranged the initial introductions between Hans Knoll and Nakashima.
Although Nakashima was a sceptic of mass-production furniture, he created two original designs for Knoll in 1946, the splay-leg table and the straight chair. At that time, Knoll was a small and up-and-coming company and so George was happy to work with their small, but excited and passionate, team.
The orders were originally fulfilled by Nakashima at his studio, before being manufactured by Knoll out of its own workshop. Interestingly, Nakashima retained the rights to produce the table and chair himself at a customer’s request, so there were actually two lines, one that’s handmade and one that’s manufactured by Knoll.
Somewhat isolated on his farm in New Hope, the collaboration brought Nakashima into contact with other like-minded designers. One of those designers was the sculptor and metalworker Harry Bertoia, and the two became good friends. George’s daughter, Mira, recalled that “Dad was very close with Bertoia,” and, “they had a lot of discussions about art, craft and design.” They became so close, and such advocates of each other’s work, that several of Bertoia’s beryllium copper sculptures can be found scattered about the property today.
Building his House
After moving to Pennsylvania to begin his new life, he found himself with limited resources, but ample time and skill. With this in mind, Nakashima had to rely on his architectural training to provide a roof for his family. Each one of the fourteen buildings that make up the compound today was hand-built by Nakashima over the course of thirty years.
As his daughter Mira recalls, “The first building was the shop. Dad found this land on a south-facing slope and he didn’t have the money to buy it, so he bartered labour as payment for his first three acres. He knew that the only way he could make a living was to make a shop first. Then my mother and I needed a place to stay so he built the house second, around 1946. All this was done on a very limited budget—most of the early buildings are made with concrete block and corrugated transite.”
“A palace in Japan is not an elaborate thing.… It’s actually fairly modest but beautifully done.… It would be a great thing … especially from the point of view of education.”
The main house still stands proud amongst the masses of buildings on the compound today, and (includes might be better than encompasses?) a pool house, gallery, museum, and cloister. It is a tribute to his legacy and, in 2014, was made a National Monument, preserving and restoring it for further generations
The perfect tree
A seeker of spiritual peace, Nakashima saw the fruition of a longtime dream on New Year’s Eve of 1986 with the dedication of his massive, heart-shaped ”Altar for Peace” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
Cut from a 125-foot English walnut tree from Long Island, and weighing three quarters of a ton, the planned and sanded altar was finished with his trademark butterfly rosewood inlays and topped with a bonsai tree.
”It was a great tree; trees with this character should have a special meaning and special use.”
Nakashima and his philosophy are now deeply rooted in American design and historic traditions. Under his design and technical guidance, furniture related to each country and its craftsmanship is made and sold, locally and abroad.
He hoped that projects like these would increase knowledge of fine woodworking methods and restore standards of craftsmanship all over the world. As he stated, “if we can restore a little of … fine concepts and attitudes and fine workmanship to Japan … and if we can introduce the same thing here, I mean, it becomes rather universal. One borrows from another, which is the way I think culture should be.”
In a sense, the entire course of Nakashima’s adult life was shaped by his “personal reaction to architectural practice in this country,” and his desire to improve design and craftsmanship.
In 1990, at 85 years old, George Nakashima passed away after a brief illness. His daughter Mira (who worked at the studio since 1970) picked up where her father left off and still runs the studio to this day, continuing to produce her father’s classic designs while also developing her own designs.
“We had a three-year backlog of orders, huge piles of wood and I decided it was too good to waste.” Many of the craftsmen currently working at Nakashima Woodworkers trained directly under George Nakashima for many years. “Dad used to say that the men in the shop, with all their skill and capabilities, were actually his hands,” Mira recalls, adding, “he worked through them.” It appears the shop operates only slightly differently today. “The only difference is that when I change a line, I voice why I feel it should be changed. Dad would just do it.”
The life and career of George Nakashima is a great story of perseverance, dedication, and passion. His work continues to be made with the same skill and attention to detail as it did before and has reached every corner of the globe. His teachings and philosophy have only enhanced a wave of new craftsmen all over the world, learning new and traditional crafts.
His work sells at auction houses all over the world and is displayed in some of the world’s best museums ensuring that his legacy will last forever. His life story serves as a testament to the skill, ingenuity, and artful genius of this master craftsman, furniture designer, and architect.
A list of some of his achievements:
In 1983, he accepted the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an honour bestowed by the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese government.
In 1952, he received the gold medal for craftsmanship of the America Institute of Architecture.
He was made a Fellow of the American Craft Council in 1979 and was the recipient of a Hazlett Award in 1981.
In August 2008, the property was designated a National Historic Landmark
In 2014, the site was made a National Monument and given a grant to preserve and restore parts of the compound.
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