From the Eameses' molded plywood to Arne Jacobsen's foam upholstery, most mid-century furniture was a celebration of new materials and technologies, much of which was initially developed for wartime use. But George Nakashima was interested in natural wood, straight from the tree, and some truly old-fashioned handcraft techniques. Let's take a look at the life and philosophy of this fascinating Modern craftsman.
George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1905. His parents were recent immigrants to the US who had met on the boat from Japan. In college at the University of Washington, Nakashima studied forestry before switching to architecture. He then got his Masters in Architecture from M.I.T.
After grad school Nakashima bummed around Paris and North Africa before heading to Japan in 1934. There, he worked for an American architect, Antonin Raymond, who sent him to India in 1937 to supervise the construction of a poured concrete dormitory at an ashram. While in India, he began to make furniture, and he also studied Integral Yoga — two seemingly separate endeavors, if not for Nakashima's explicitly spiritual approach to woodworking. When he got back to Tokyo, near the onset of World War II, he met his wife Marion. Together, they moved to Seattle (Marion was also Japanese-American), where Nakashima worked for an architect and taught woodworking classes.
A couple years later, Nakashima, his wife and baby daughter were placed in a Japanese internment camp in Idaho. Turning adversity into incredible opportunity, in the camp, Nakashima met and studied with a craftsman, Gentauro Hikogawa, who taught him traditional Japanese woodworking techniques.
Antonin Raymond helped get the Nakashimas out of the internment camp, and then invited them to his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. There Nakashima began his woodworking practice in earnest, establishing his unique style that he is known for today.
Nakashima's approach to woodworking was to respect the tree. Instead of cutting wood into uniform planks, he kept all the inconsistencies of shape, color and texture, allowing the natural characteristics of the material to determine the form of the furniture. Nakashima found the story revealed in the wood to be beautiful both aesthetically and spiritually:
"There is a special feeling to working with this wood. You realize how long these trees have lives, and it places you in a kind of upstart position. In their presence you feel humility instead of that arrogance that wants to conquer nature."
The traditional techniques and tools Nakashima used reveal a lot about his process. A Life magazine article about Nakashima described the difference in saws: "With a crosscut, or rip, one pushes, outward. With the Japanese saw, one pulls, inward, inward." Nakashima recalled the Japanese craftsmen who had inspired his practice, who could plane "a perfect ten-foot shaving from a ten-foot board." Nakashima related his furniture work to his spirituality, as well as to his Japanese origins and his studies in India:
"I have always been interested in meditation and mysticism. I think I've always been that kind of seeker. But I am also Japanese enough and pragmatic enough to want to give this spirit physical expression."
Nakashima's most recognizable work, and the work that proved the most influential, included wood in its natural form, with burls and knots and rough edges. But even his more "mainstream" pieces — for example, his rectilinear sideboards and desks (images 6-8) — revealed the chromatic character of the wood, valuing variation over consistency. Fundamentally, Nakashima's work was about functionality, and there is something essentially and beautifully pragmatic about keeping the material as raw as could be. One of Nakashima's most enduring influences was the simple functionalism of vernacular furniture like Windsor chairs and traditional American spindle-back chairs (you can hear about his Conoid chairs (image 1) in this wonderful audio from the Luce Foundation.)
Nakashima died in 1990, and his daughter, Mira, took over his company. She maintains a studio of craftsmen who continue the Nakashima tradition.
Images: 1 House Beautiful; 2 IDSA Philly; 3 Christie's; 4 Sotheby's; 5 Sotheby's; 6 Hulya Kolabas for Elle Decor; 7 Peter-Roberts Antiques via 1stdibs; 8 Sotheby's.
Sources: For more information about George Nakashima, I recommend Nakashima's own book, The Soul of A Tree: A Master Woodworker's Reflections, or his daugher Mira's more recent monograph, Nature, Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. You can still buy new Nakashima pieces, produced at the New Hope studio by trained craftsmen under Mira's oversight — check it out at Nakashimawoodworker.com. Original works are incredibly expensive at auction or on 1stdibs (the desk in Image 8, for example, is $18,000 at Peter-Roberts), but DWR sells a lovely coffee table ($1563) and Windsor chair ($634) originally designed for Knoll.