Vintage view: George Nakashima's furniture

George Nakashima described himself as a woodworker.

Kya deLongchamps explores the gentle genius of George Nakashima, one of the leading lights of American Studio furniture.

THERE’S a sliver of tension in a great piece of furniture. It’s strung like a musical instrument, set in perpetual balance by its maker. Inhabiting the space between art and utility, it asks more of us than ‘it will do’.

Rustic meets refined is a favourite joust for carpenters, and it’s a meeting of the natural and nurtured that’s famously difficult to bring home. 

George Nakashima (1905-1990) is not known to the average Irish buyer, but it’s difficult to find anyone who does not respond to his work on first sight. 

Do an image search of his name on Google and you will find lightly composed tables and benches, spindle backed chairs and a modernism you feel you have seen before — and you have.

Nakashima is highly influential amongst cabinetmakers, and you will easily recognise further traces of his opus in the work of dozens of our native and European artisans and design houses including Zelouf+Bell (Ireland), Shane Turbid (Wexford), Stephen Finch, Jonathan Field, and Daniel Gill (all UK) to name just a splinter.

Conoid Bench by George Nakashima (1905-1990).
Conoid Bench by George Nakashima (1905-1990).

This is not the expected in mid-century design, so closely defined with new materials, exploded ideas in shape, and factory led assemblage. 

Nakashima, a highly decorated icon of design in his native America and Japan, went back to wood, teaming exquisite pure lines to the tenets of ancient craftsmanship. The wood leads the work and he described himself as just that — a woodworker. 

Nakashima said frequently in interviews that he had no interest in furniture in any other material, and he turned calmly away from the industrial, back to the handmade.

Born in the deeply forested area of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, Nakashima studied forestry before transferring to architecture at MIT. 

He travelled extensively in Europe and Asia, arriving in Japan in 1934 to work with the American architect, Antonin Raymond on an Indian project.

He and his wife Marion, like many other Japanese-Americans, were held in an internment camp during the second world war. Raymond helped to free the couple and brought them to New Hope in Pennsylvania, the beating heart of the American furniture industry. 

Here, Nakashima revealed his own special feel and talents, informed by his cultural background, travels and architectural education.

George Nakashima’s work displays a genuine modesty, a beautiful measure, and above all, a respect of the timber, bowing to natural knots, fissures, splits and colour.
George Nakashima’s work displays a genuine modesty, a beautiful measure, and above all, a respect of the timber, bowing to natural knots, fissures, splits and colour.

His work — and that of his heirs under his daughter Mira — displays a genuine modesty, a beautiful measure, and above all, a respect of the timber, bowing to natural knots, fissures, splits and colour. 

Nakashima writes of the trees who serve him, as a friend, not a fabric: ‘In their presence you feel humility instead of that arrogance that wants to conquer nature’ (The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworker’s Reflections.)

There’s a touching set of essays on the studio’s website today, exploring everything from the metaphysical harmony of taking the tree from the forest, to the treasures of fantastic grain colours waiting to be uncovered even in the roots. 

“Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength, and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth”.

Nakashima’s generous promotion of exchange in design ideas between Japan and America over his lifetime earned him The Third Order of the Sacred Treasure, from the Emperor and Government of Japan in 1983. He was a deeply spiritual, centred person, and his daily meditative practices together with the patient use of a traditional Japanese saw, set his work apart. 

Often this was seen as fulfilling the ‘destiny’ of the tree from which the wood was taken. Delivering the plank as closely to its original raw state produced some wonderful forms.

In 1984 Nakashima bought a single massive black walnut tree, dreaming that its planks would make up six ‘Altars of Peace’ to be used for worship and the meeting of minds worldwide. 

Three altars are already in place, and his stunning plywood shell-inspired roof to his Arts’ Building, home to the Foundation for Peace, turns 50 this year.

The retention of free or ‘wany’ edges, where the bark is left intact on a table-top, shelf or bench was not invented on the set of Game of Thrones, it really took off in the 1950s with fine furniture designers including, Nakashima. The edges can be turned inward in two plank tables with rippled void centres.

Nakashima’s other signature pieces, like his Conoid cantilevered chairs, desks and tables are replicated well, and clumsily, all over the world. A single pegged 1950s walnut and hickory New Chair signed by Nakashima will set you back about €3,500 (Ercol Windsor chairs are remarkably similar), a Japanese-style, thickly boarded chest starts from €16,000 and a rare, oversized wany-edged dining table can command six figures. Knoll still carries three modest pieces of Nakashima design from €400 for a tray.

During his working life, as well as commercial outreach to firms like Knoll and contracts to the Rockefellers, Nakashima would include a delicate, cultural show for all commissioning clients in New Hope. 

While it’s easy to be cynical and say the businessman in him was giving the visitors’ wallets a subtle massage with his kimono wearing, tea-taking and demand that they take off their shoes in the studio, the experience was generally cherished.

Asking that an untrained member of the public choose the raw timber for say, a table top, brought the buyer shyly and curiously forward — it demanded some give, an intimacy.

There’s no right or wrong in the choice, a central tenet of Japanese Wabi Sabi design principles. Outsiders brought their individual eye, their passions, talents, failings and prejudices with them, adding to the authenticity and originality of the finished piece. 

It’s something to require of anyone you ask to create design or artwork — that taking in of who you are, what you love, how you live. 


Can you imagine Spanish churros, Moroccan tagines or even Christmas cakes without its fragrant taste?MIchelle Darmody: Warm smells of cinnamon

Rachel Howard visits the South Moravia region to sample this eastern European country’s finest tipples.They’re big on beer but could the Czech Republic be raising a glass to wine tourism too?

Lisa Salmon catches up with a cardiologist, who explains how a patient’s own stem cells can repair damage from heart disease and heart failure.How stem cells are mending broken hearts

Hannah Stephenson discovers America’s dark past and Martin Luther King’s vision for its future by following the civil rights trail.Charting America’s path to freedom on a road trip through the Deep South

More From The Irish Examiner