George Nakashima’s stationary read “George Nakashima, Woodworker, New Hope, Pennsylvania” as if Nakashima needed any introduction. Today Nakashima is regarded as one the most important artisans of the American studio crafts movement.
George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington in 1905 and grew up in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in architecture at the University of Washington (although he enrolled in the University to study forestry and switched majors after two years) and a Master’s from MIT in 1930, as well as the Prix Fontainebleau from L’Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts in France.
During the 1930’s Nakashima lived in Paris and from there he traveled to Japan to familiarize himself with his ancestral roots. It was in Tokyo that Nakashima joined Antonin Raymond’s firm which allowed him to work in Pondicherry, India, where he supervised the building of the dorms at the Sri Aurobindo ashram, a project which would have a profound impact on the designer. For this project Nakashima created his pieces of furniture.
At the start of World War II he headed back to the U.S. but not before returning to Japan where he met his future wife, Marion. Once back in the US, in 1941 (the same year that he married Marion), the couple settled in Seattle. In 1942, the year that his daughter Mira was born, Nakashima and his family were sent to the internment camps in Idaho. With Raymond’s help, Nakashima was able to get out but only after the architect promised that the designer would work for him on his farm in Bucks County, PA. It was here that Nakashima began his business and built his home and workshop, known as the Conoid studio. (“Conoid” is also the name of his very famous chairs from 1960).
An introduction to a sales catalogue published by the craftsman reads, “Our approach is based on direct experience- a way of life and a development outward from an inner core; something of the same process that nature uses in the creation of a tree- with one addition, the aspiration of man to produce the wonder and beauty of his potentialities.” And elsewhere in the same catalogue, “Furniture, we feel, is a development of mood besides being purely utilitarian. A small poetic haven in an unsettled world where excitement seems so necessary.”
According to the Magazine Antiques, Nakashima described his work as “Japanese shaker” and allowed the actual piece of wood to dictate the final appearance of each of his handcrafted pieces. It has been said on numerous occasions that Nakashima felt as if he was giving trees a second life by reworking them into a piece of furniture. It has also been written that Nakashima had a very impressive collection of rare and exotic woods, although he loved American black walnut, and that he would often drive around Pennsylvania gathering woods which he would store in his studio for later use. Some of his pieces incorporate several types of wood at once for contrast but it is always for practical reasons, like his butterfly joints, and not decorative purposes (see the description for the Editor’s Desk below). Most of the time the natural beauty of the wood was enough to create a handsome piece. This is particularly true of a low table with a Minguren I base that is part of Primavera Gallery’s collection. The yellow contours of the table look like blazing flames.
It is not unusual for a lot of Nakashima’s clients to still have the original receipts from their purchases and instructions to the craftsman having to do with their commissions. Since Nakashima did not sign his pieces and these receipts are proof that they came out of his workshop. This is a coup for modern day collectors because they have provenance information and also details about the design process. The pieces in our collection all have a prized provenance and most come with the original sales receipt. One of our Minguren II coffee tables (made of American black walnut) was commissioned by Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1973. This was a very important commission for the craftsman. The Governor requests that Nakashima design and produce furniture for his Pocantico, NY home. We have one of the three tables that Nakashima made for him. Unfortunately it was never placed in the interior as it was too large for the space. Instead the table was sold to Mr. Manning, one of the craftsman’s wood suppliers.
Another special piece from our collection is a unique Editor’s Desk (made of American black walnut with rosewood butterflies and a maple burl cup holder) that belonged to Dr. Arthur Krosnick of Princeton, New Jersey. Dr. Krosnick and his wife Evelyn were not just close friends of the Nakashimas but Dr. Krosnick was his physician. The couple amassed an important collection (over 100 pieces) of his works and their home, Melody Woods III, was furnished entirely by Nakashima. This Editor’s Desk, or lectern, was made by Nakashima in 1981 especially for the Doctor and was featured on the cover of the Medical Society of New Jersey, of which Dr. Krosnick was the editor. This lectern was also used by the various speakers at the opening reception of “George Nakashima: Full Circle”, a retrospective exhibition at the American Craft Museum (now the Museum of Arts+ Design. This exhibition, curated by Derek Ostergard, was not only the first major exhibition of Nakashima’s work but also the most important). Dr. Krosnick was so attached to this piece that he did not intend to loan it to the exhibition and took it home after the lectures. Several days later a massive fire destroyed the home and all of its contents. However since the editor’s desk was Dr. Krosnick’s favorite, Nakashima promised to make a new piece for him, which he did in 1990 right before his death. This resulted in the last piece of furniture created by George Nakashima.
While Nakashima was against mass production, because he thought it to be “dehumanizing”, he did collaborate with Knoll from 1945-1954. This was a profitable partnership for the designer as his name became known in households all over America. Also between 1957 and 1961 he released Origins, a line created for the furniture maker Widdicomb-Mueller.
Nakashima was active till the end. In 1989, a year prior to his death, he said “My wood is better now, and my work is better now.”
Among many awards from the AIA and other prestigious institutions, Nakashima received the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor and Government of Japan in 1983 in recognition of the cultural exchange generated by the shows he produced in Japan from 1968-1988. Nakashima’s final award was an Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, from the University of Washington one week prior to his death in June 1990 (he was eight-five years old).
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