Soul Man: Getting to know master craftsman George Nakashima

 The Nakashima family.

The Nakashima family.

The handmade works of the late Japanese-American furniture maker George Nakashima have become collectors’ items for a reason.

Long considered a defining figure in the American studio furniture movement, master artisan George Nakashima’s work remains relatively unknown in Australia. “I’ve had enquiries from Australia but no purchases,” says Philadelphia-based gallerist Robert Aibel, who has been selling Nakashima’s designs at the city’s Moderne Gallery since the mid-’80s, a time when the craftsman’s work wasn’t so prized. “In 1985, people thought of his work as used furniture, because you could go direct to George and order anything you wanted,” says Aibel.

Following Nakashima’s death in 1990, the market for his work slowly grew, before skyrocketing in the early 2000s. Collectors marvelled at the way it integrates itself into any interior scheme. In the last 10 years, his handmade furniture has triggered fever-pitch bidding at auctions worldwide. ‘Arlyn’, a large redwood dining table, reached US$822,400 (approximately $794,600) at a Sotheby’s auction in 2006.

A brilliant example of his free-form designs, the table features a top formed from a piece of transverse timber cut from the base of a giant redwood root. “He was working with wood in a way that nobody else in the 20th century had been; [he had] that idea of having a level of respect for the tree and letting the wood speak for itself,” says Aibel.

Silver Plume gallery in Sydney’s Double Bay is selling a series of Nakashima works from the 1960s and ’70s, which co-owner Tad Anderman brought over with him when he relocated from the United States. They include one of the coveted free-form black walnut dining tables, a bench and a sideboard, and six ‘Conoid’ chairs made by the craftsman’s daughter Mira Nakashima, who continues to produce her father’s and her own designs from the family workshop in Pennsylvania. “They’re a phenomenal conversation piece,” says Anderman.

“His furniture was very much in the tradition of the American Arts & Crafts movement,” says Andrew Shapiro, director of Sydney’s Shapiro gallery and a specialist in 20th-century decorative arts. “The construction details are the beauty of the furniture: the dovetailing and butterfly joints.”

The American-born Shapiro grew up in Philadelphia, a short drive from Nakashima’s picturesque property in Bucks County (now a compound of buildings, some open to the public, including the working studios). Family visits to his studio as a child in the ’60s made an indelible impression. “It was one of the only places you could go back then and see exotic, flamboyant grained woods, and the unique man who was turning them into fabulous furniture,” he says.

Born in Spokane, Washington, in 1905 to Japanese immigrants, Nakashima studied architecture at the University of Washington and gained a masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working as an architect in New York, he embarked on a cross–cultural process of self-discovery in the ’30s that saw him travel the globe for seven years. He arrived in Tokyo in 1934 and spent five years in pre-war Japan.

He was profoundly inspired by the country’s dedication to excellence in craft: “The elegance and power of simplicity, the beauty of proper materials, the delicacy of unfinished wood, the traditional and modern creative proportions, where the error of a fraction of an inch can make the design fail absolutely.”

After a period in Pondicherry, India, he returned to America and married. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Nakashima, his Japanese-American wife Marion and baby daughter Mira were interned in a “War Relocation Camp”, where Nakashima became apprentice to a carpenter trained in Japanese woodworking.

The family was released in 1943 and headed to rural Pennsylvania, where they would establish his first workshop on three acres of land in Bucks County. Over time, the estate expanded to include the Nakashima family home, workshop and storage facilities, a museum and a reception house.

While Nakashima designed furniture collections for Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, his most collectable pieces are the result of private commissions. Robert Aibel estimates he made up to 35,000 pieces in his lifetime, working alongside a core group of a dozen artisans. The workshop made 200 pieces for the house of Nelson Rockefeller in 1973.

Nakashima saw wood as an “eternal material” and believed once the tree was felled, it was the responsibility of the woodworker to use the timber respectfully. “Each flitch, each board, each plank can have only one ideal use. The woodworker applying a thousand skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realise its true potential. The result is our ultimate object, plain and simple,” he wrote. He was opposed to the use of veneer, believing it cheapened the inherent dignity of timber, and he was unique in that he found merits in timber others rejected. Recognising the value of defects he once said, “is the core of our madness, I guess, and also our business.” 

The large holes where a tree had begun to decay and then healed itself were seen as “a positive statement of life which makes am extraordinary design expression” and details in the wood caused during storm damage were revived as a new form of patterning. His sensitivity to the life and personality of the wood and approach to the process of woodworking was almost evangelical and certainly mystical.

Although he was a practising Catholic, his work was influenced by Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo. He told Life magazine in 1970: “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... The endeavour must be to bring out the beauty and proportion, the textures and depth of the material used, to produce something that may last forever.”

This story was first published in Vogue Living July/Aug 2012. Download a PDF of the original story click here. Visit nakashimawoodworker.com. All images occur courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.