Nakashima, George – American Designer

George Nakashima (1905-1990)

George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington in 1905, the son of Japanese immigrants. His educational pursuits began in the 1920′s at the University of Washington, and from there he studied in Paris at the Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts and ultimately graduated from MIT with an MA in Architecture in 1930. He also learned traditional woodworking in Japan and India.

In 1931, when Nakashima began his professional life as an architectural designer, he worked for the Long Island State Parks and the New York State Government. In 1933 he traveled to Japan and then India where Antonin Raymond influenced both his work and philosophy. In the early 1940′s he moved back to Seattle and started a furniture workshop and designing interiors. Here he established his professional aesthetic and produced works inspired by the simplicity and methods of the Shaker furniture makers which established him as a known name in the West Coast design community. Nakashima’s writings as well as some of his design work began to appear in Arts & Architecture and other publications.

During World War II, Nakashima, his wife Marion and daughter Mira, who was only 6 weeks old, were sent to an Idaho internment camp. There Nakashima was trained on salvaged wood by a master Japanese carpenter. Working with unfinished natural wood gave Nakashima an immense well of inspiration and he wrote that, “in dealing with solid wood almost each piece becomes a personal problem and the nature of each slab is used to its fullest capacity.” The Nakashima family was released from the internment camp in 1943 through the sponsorship of George’s associate, Antonin Raymond. Raymond had returned to America and was living in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where the Nakashima family joined him and established a studio.

George Nakashima’s style, which remained relatively constant throughout his career, was seen as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement in the way it valued craftsmanship. His designs reflect the earliest American furniture in their economy of means and their respect for the unique qualities of each wood. Nakashima believed that his work was “not only a creative force, but a moral idea.”

Nakashima’s furniture design series of 1946 for Knoll was unique in that it often left the natural edge of the wood as part of the finished piece. His unique tables, like the Slab Coffee Table were very successful commercially, but Nakashima maintained the production rights and sold the same pieces from his own shop. During this period he also produced a series of chairs (Settee, No Arms, and Mira) which often revealed the natural knots in the wood, and had a more finished quality than his tables. In 1957 the Widdicomb-Mueller company released his classic Origins line of furniture, which was followed by the Conoid series of furniture, frames and room dividers. In 1973 Nakashima received his largest single commission, to create over 200 pieces for Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s home in Tarrytown, New York. The estate, designed by a Japanese architect from Nakashima’s Raymond days, called for elegant but durable pieces with an eastern sensibility. This series was called Greenrock, the name of Rockefeller’s estate. In 1983 he designed the massive “Altar of Peace” installed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

George Nakashima died in 1990. His daughter, architect/craftsman Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, continues to direct the Nakashima Studio in New Hope and to develop new pieces of her own.

George Nakashima & his Furniture Designs

-By p4A Contributing Editor Susan Cramer.

George Nakashima founded his still extant studio in the 1940s and produced popular handmade furniture until his death in 1990. His studio pieces as well as lines designed for Knoll International and the Widdicomb Company have a strong following. Nakashima’s immersion in his and other cultures brought about his designs for furniture deeply rooted in history, architecture, and nature.

George Nakashima Biography
George Nakashima (1905-1990) was born in Spokane, Washington where he spent his boyhood hiking and camping in the rugged coastal mountains near his home. In 1939, he earned a bachelor’s degree of arts in Architecture, and was accepted into the post-graduate program in architecture at Harvard University. After a brief period there, he transferred to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), where he earned a master’s degree in 1930. Nakashima spent the next few years working for the Long Island State Park Commission, but by 1933, the 28 year old architect would begin an almost decade-long spiritual journey that would take him to the world’s most beautiful locations, and through his exposure to the best in traditional art and culture and cutting edge architecture, inform the aesthetic truths that would influence his work for the rest of his life.

Nakashima in Japan, India and China

During his time in Paris, Nakashima began questioning his commitment to architecture, deciding that its reliance on technology and rigid principles was not for him. Leaving Paris, he traveled to Japan where he spent his days immersed in the intricacies of Japanese culture and society. His background in architecture led him to an appreciation for the Japanese sensibility in architecture and art, especially the technique use by Japanese craftsmen in the blending of traditional and modern forms; the merging of old and new. This synthesis of traditional woodworking techniques with modern forms would inform Nakashima’s work for the rest of his career. After visits to China and a stay in an Ashram in Pondicherry, India, George Nakashima returned to the United States in 1941 where he would begin creating the furniture that is still popular today.

George Nakashima & the War Years (1941-43)

A first generation American, Nakashima was interned with his wife, Marian in a relocation camp in Hunt Idaho from 1941-1943. During his internment, he met and worked with a furniture maker who was skilled in the methods of traditional woodworking who taught him the means and methods of woodworking by hand. In 1943, George and his wife were sponsored by a past employer, and were released from the camp.

George Nakashima’s Furniture Studio

His journey around the globe along with his forced confinement finally brought him to the work he would do happily and successfully for the rest of his life-designing and building high quality hand crafted modern furniture with deep traditional roots. Nakashima’s earliest designs were inspired by iconic Colonial American furniture. Windsor chairs, harvest tables, and plank cupboards were simplified, stripped of ornament, and executed in ways in which the natural beauty and imperfections of the wood was allowed to shine.

A collaboration with furniture manufacturer Knoll International brought his work to the attention of architects and designers, and brought in enough capital to expand his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and embark on his own projects. His collaboration with The Widdicomb Furniture Company produced mass-marketed, hard edged versions of his designs, and introduced his work to mainstream, middle-class America. In 1961, he introduced the Conoid Group which continues to be the Studio’s biggest seller.

George Nakashima, Mira Nakashima, & Nelson Rockefeller

In 1973, Nakashima won the commission to create the furniture for the New York Governor’s residence in Tarrytown, New York. The house perched high above the Hudson River was designed in a distinctively Japanese style. Nakashima produced hundreds of pieces for the house including variations on some of his existing designs. Also in the 1970s, George’s Harvard-trained daughter, Mira joined the studio, which still produces Nakashima designs exactly the same way George did.

Reference: Rago, David & Sollo, John, Collecting Modern: A Guide to Midcentury Studio Furniture & Ceramics, Gibbs Smith c2001.

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