Fathers of American Furniture Making (Part 2)
“The work is not about me, it’s about the tree, it’s about nature” –George Nakashima
Today’s blog is the second in my series focusing on the master furniture builders: Sam Maloof, George Nakashima, Wendell Castle and James Krenov. I will be focusing on George Nakashima in this blog.
George Katsutoshi Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington on May 24 1905 and died June 15, 1990. This legendary American woodworker, architect and furniture maker began his education in 1928 when he received a one year scholarship to study architecture at Ecole Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1929 he graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor’s Degree in architecture and MIT with a Master’s in architecture in 1930. After school he painted murals in the New York state capitol building in Albany for the Richard Brooks Studio. A year later, the Long Island State Park Commission hired him to paint murals and design buildings. However, when the great depression hit he lost his job and purchased an “around the world” ticket on a steamship. Upon making his way to Paris, where he lived for a year, he visited Modernist architect Le Courbusier’s Pavillion, Suisse which was built in the International style. Key elements of this style, which was new at that time, are: rectilinear forms, no surface decoration or ornamentation, open interior spaces, and a weightless quality made possible by the use of cantilever construction. After France he lived and worked in Japan where he worked in the offices of Antonin Raymond a former collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wright. In Japan, Nakashima learned about Japanese culture and architectural tradition. This influence can be seen in his later work.
A pivotal, yet unpleasant, experience in his life was the time he, his wife Marion and infant daughter Mira spent in the Minidoka Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho 1942. American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were evacuated and moved to relocation centers around the country during World War II. While in the internment camp he met an elderly Japanese woodworker, Gentaro Hikogawa, who taught Nakashima about traditional Japanese carpentry. They were there until 1943 when the former dean of the School of Architecture at MIT asked Antonin Raymond to sponsor the Nakashima family’s release which was granted. A condition of Nakashima’s release was that he could only work in agriculture so Raymond brought them to live on his farm in New Hope, PA. In 1946 George and Mira purchased three acres in New Hope PA and began building the “complex” that is the home to his furniture business to this day.
It’s difficult to look at Nakashima’s work and say that it is any one particular style. Rather, it combines Japanese aesthetics with modern design to create cutting edge signature features; his use of live edge, crotch figuring, natural flaws, sapwood and butterfly joints to stabilize cracking already present in the surface. Prior to Nakashima much of the wood he used in his legendary collection would have been considered junk by other woodworkers. Like Sam Maloof, Nakashima rejected mass production brought on by the machine age. He was dedicated to bringing out the beauty that was already present in the wood and didn’t want to cloud this innate elegance with superfluous additions. His furniture style has often been defined as "organic naturalism" yet his timeless pieces defy more specific categorization. I ran across a very nice quote that I thought summed up his work in an award he received from the American Institute of Architects: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, naturalness and organic beauty found expression in his furniture. Clean lines, well-selected materials and natural, hand-rubbed oil finish distinguish his product. Many have found in his furniture an echo of the austere early Pennsylvania craftsmanship of the Shakers.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with George’s grandson Satoru “Ru” Amagasu about his grandfather. I had done so much reading about the history of Nakashima and I really wanted to know what the man was like from someone that knew and grew up with him. Satoru spent quite a bit of time describing not only his grandfather’s life but the role that Marion, George's wife, had played in the life of the business. While George was the artistic tour de force and sales face of the business, Marion quietly worked alongside her husband with great attention to detail in record keeping. Specifically the detailed “order records” on every purchase that came through Nakashima. Satoru and Mira are grateful that they have such a detailed production history of George’s work.
Like any great artist Nakashima naturally incorporated his passion for architecture and furniture building into his everyday life. World famous chef, Heston Blumenthal, does not stop thinking about culinary innovation when he goes home, violinist Itzak Pearlman doesn’t let his violin lay on a table between performances and George Nakashima didn’t step away from his focus on creating some of the most beautiful, cutting edge designs the world has known. While not obsessive about his occupation, according to Satoru, George had a very healthy balance between work, family and personal growth. Not well known was his passion and talent for cooking with one of his favorite dishes to prepare being Shrimp Curry. He was also an excellent gardener.
The owner of T.Y. Fine Furniture is Tarik Yousef, a Mechanical Engineer with a passion for wood-working and furniture building. He has marveled at the creations of George Nakashima and his take away lesson from the Master has been to pay respect to the wood that nature has given us and to not cloud its beauty with what some would call ego driven eccentricities. T.Y. Fine Furniture pays respect to the wood with humble, honest construction, and an organic wood finish to create a final product that will last for generations.
I thank Satoru Amagasu for answering my questions. Here is a link to the Nakashima Woodworking site.
by Wes Miller