George Katsutoshi Nakashima, Japanese-American architect and furniture maker (1905-1990)

Early Life: The Boy in the Woods

"A tree is our most intimate contact with nature."—George Nakashima

George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington. As a child, he loved hiking in the in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest and exploring them on long, solitary excursions. In the Boy Scouts of America, he and his troopmates explored and camped in the forests of the Cascade Mountains. An exceptionally intelligent and philosophical boy, he enjoyed learning the names of the plants and animals of these old woods as much as he loved meditating on the meaning of life up in the high timber of the Olympic Peninsula. These experiences shaped the boy that was to grow up to be one of the United States' finest woodworkers.

It was in these same foothills and mountains that the teenaged George worked on the railroads, shovelling gravel and replacing ties in the tracks. It was very difficult, unrewarding work, but it helped pay for his education. He occasionally travelled north to Alaska, taking odd jobs such as working in a salmon cannery–this allowed him to hike in this pristine wilderness. At the University of Washington, he trained in architecture, graduating with a Bachelor's Degree. He then studied architecture at L'Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts in France where he received the Prix Fontainebleau and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with a Master's Degree in 1930.

Work and Travels: From Paris to Japan (With a Long Stop Between)

"I'm interested in furniture because I think it's the closest relationship to wood that most people have."—George Nakashima

After graduation,George Nakashima's first job, in 1931, was designing architecture for the Long Island State Parks Department and the New York State Government. That work gave out within a year, and he decided to see the world. Selling his Ford Touring Car, he booked passage on a steamer and set off to return to his beloved Paris. He lived in a tiny room in Al├ęsia, on the outskirts of Montparnasse, which was at that time the center of a vibrant art community. It was in Paris that he became interested in philosophy, art and music, and he even worked for a time as a clerk in a music publishing firm.

He moved on to work as an architect for Antonin Raymond and this work took him to India and Japan from 1932 until the late 1930s. In Pondicherry, India, he studied at an ashram under the master Sri Aurobindo and received the Sanskrit name Sundarananda ('one who delights in beauty'). He also designed and oversaw the construction of a new building for the ashram. As he learned more about the cultures, he further developed his love of woodworking.

Nakashima had a philosophical approach to his craft; his interest was in working with the wood which was his material, using the innate beauty of the material–the grain, the knots, the burl, making all of the elements a part of his overall design. He said that the wood would "tell him what to do." To him, the imperfections in a piece of wood were simply a part of this native beauty. Mr. Nakashima felt that woodworking begins before you cut the wood and worked very hard to bring out the look that was locked into the raw materials. He was also inspired by the simplicity of Shaker furniture.

At the outbreak of World War II, he immediately returned to the U.S., where he started a furniture workshop in Seattle in 1940. This was also the time when he met his wife-to-be, Marion. In 1942, Nakashima and his family were interned in a camp for U.S. citizens of Japanese descent in Minidoka, Idaho. There, he worked with bits of scrap wood and salvage under the tutelage of a master carpenter. The Nakashimas were released in 1943 with the help of Antonin Raymond, who also helped them move to New Hope, Pennsylvania. There, Mr. Nakashima designed and built a home and workshop in 1945.

The Work and the Rewards

"...in dealing with solid wood almost each piece becomes a personal problem and the nature of each slab is used to its fullest capacity."—George Nakashima

George Nakashima's reputation grew, quickly spreading from his native United States around the world. He received commissions for buildings and furnishings from many businesses, foundations, churches and individuals. Over the years, Nakashima and his workshop received many such commissions, but none was ever bigger that the order he received from the home of Governor Rockefeller in Tarrytown, New York–over 200 pieces of furniture. Greenrock, the governor's estate, had been designed by a colleague of Nakashima's and it was a logical choice to populate the home with beautiful, durable pieces of Mr. Nakashima's design.

Nakashima's designs are elegant and complex, using various woods including black walnut, maple, redwood, Persian walnut, rosewood and American cherry. The rich grains of these beautiful woods are brought to life by his designs. His furniture is aesthetically pleasing, functional and elegant in its simplicity. Over the years, he and his craftsmen made many hundreds of pieces of furniture, some of which now fetch five figures at auction. George Nakashima's single most famous piece is the huge Altar of Peace (1983) which is in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

Throughout his long and illustrious career, Mr. Nakashima and his organization won many awards, among these was the Gold Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Architects, awarded to him in 1952. Another notable prize was the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor and Government of Japan, presented in 1983 for the cultural exchange that his many shows in Japan brought about.

Much of George Nakashima's work shows in museums and galleries. I once had the very good fortune to see an exhibit of his work, plus a fair amount of memorabilia at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. Our group included a trained carpenter, an avid amateur woodworker and an expert on Japanese culture–this made for an extraordinary educational experience (although the two massage therapists did not have that much to contribute apart from our awed comments!).

Up close, Nakashima's craftsmanship is evident even to the poor non-craftsman who has never successfully connected two boards. The wood is cut in such a way that the grain runs in patterns that are absolutely dazzling. Pieces are joined with butterfly joints of contrasting woods and grains. A tabletop, for example, might have one color and texture, while the legs might have one with subtle differences that are only noticed on close inspection. The overall effect of all of Mr. Nakashima's work is always warm and inviting, organic and comfortable. The highlight of this exhibit for me was a genuine Nakashima bench which patrons were invited to sit upon. It was so lovingly crafted that it was extremely comfortable, even though it was not padded.

George Nakashima's Legacy: Woodworking as Art

"Dad's furniture was all about the wood. He rebelled against modern technology and its dehumanizing effects. He believed that wood has a soul and spoke often of giving second life to a tree through his furniture designs."—Mira Nakashima

Mr. Nakashima's memoir is entitled "the Soul of a Tree; A Woodworker's Reflections," published in 1981 and still available. It is a very beautiful and moving book which I highly recommend.

George Nakashima worked collaboratively with his daughter, Mira for the last twenty or so years of his life. Mira Nakashima received an undergraduate degree from Harvard and received her Masters Degree in architecture from Waseda University in Tokyo. She is currently in charge of the Nakashima Workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, which continues to create beautiful work in architecture and furniture. Marion Nakashima (George's widow) and their son Kevin are currently in charge of account and correspondence management for the workshop and grandson Satoru "Ru" Amagasu assists in sales and management. The Nakashima Workshop employs about ten craftspeople, some of them members of the family. The Nakashima Workshop has collaborated with many world-famous architects and carpenters, all learning the late Mr. Nakashima's respect for the natural forms of the materials.


References:
The Moderne Gallery: http://www.modernegallery.com/pages/nakashima/nakashima_bio.html
R 20th Century art online: http://www.r20thcentury.com/bios/designer.cfm?article_id=74
Micucci, Dana, "Family Dynamic" House Beautiful, May 2004, Vol. 146, Issue 5, pg. 60.
"Nature Form and Spirit; The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima" American Craft, April/May 2004, Vol. 64, Issue 2, pg. 29.
Herrera, Philip, "The Glory of Wood: Nakashima" in Town & Country Jan 2002, V. 156, iss. 5260, p. 118.
Nakashima, George, "The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections, First Paperback Edition (Kodansha America, New York, 1988).
The Nakashima Foundation has a magnificent website where you can see some of the designs, set up a tour of their studio and learn much more about Mr. Nakashima at http://www.nakashimawoodworker.com
Also George Nakashima: Nature, Form and Spirit–an exhibit by the Japanese American National Museum, 369 East First Street, Los Angeles, California, December 2004.