VOGUE Living Australia - - News - WRITES JASON MOWEN.

Mas­ter wood crafts­man Ge­orge Nakashima gave ex­otic tim­ber a sec­ond life

IF ONE DE­SCRIBED THE LIFE PATH of ar­chi­tect and de­signer-crafts­man Ge­orge Nakashima as a book, it would most likely be The Road Less Trav­elled. Eso­teric, even spir­i­tual in his ap­proach to fur­ni­ture mak­ing, Nakashima be­lieved in the “soul of a tree” and de­voted his life to the craft­ing of wood in its most nat­u­ral form. Born in 1905 in Spokane, Wash­ing­ton, to re­cently em­i­grated Ja­panese par­ents and in­flu­enced by the du­al­ity of his roots, Nakashima was drawn to the sim­ple crafts­man­ship of the early Amer­i­can Colo­nial pe­riod, par­tic­u­larly that of the Shakers, as well as what he liked to call his “Sa­mu­rai her­itage”. Forg­ing a path through 20th-cen­tury de­sign as in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic as the “free edge” pieces of fur­ni­ture he crafted, he was one of the most sig­nif­i­cant stu­dio fur­ni­ture mak­ers to emerge from the post-war pe­riod. And he has re­mained sig­nif­i­cant. Al­though prices paid for his ex­traor­di­nar­ily nat­u­ral­is­tic pieces have not been re­alised since their pre-fi­nan­cial cri­sis peak, when Sotheby’s New York sold a Nakashima din­ing ta­ble for US$822,400 in 2006, he nev­er­the­less re­mains one of the most col­lectible of last cen­tury’s blue-chip fur­ni­ture mak­ers. As is so of­ten the case in the story of mid-cen­tury Mod­ernism, Nakashima was caught up in the great artis­tic di­as­pora that took place ei­ther side of the World War II. With scant hope of se­cur­ing work dur­ing the De­pres­sion ( he grad­u­ated in 1930 from the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy with a mas­ter’s de­gree in ar­chi­tec­ture), Nakashima sold his car and hopped on a steamship to travel around the world. Fol­low­ing a stint in Paris he trav­elled to Ja­pan, where his ar­rival co­in­cided with the emer­gence of the mingei, or folk art move­ment. He se­cured a job with Czech-Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect An­tonin Ray­mond, who in 1937 sent him to Pondicherry, In­dia, to over­see the con­struc­tion of a dor­mi­tory at the Sri Aurobindo ashram (where he also be­came a dis­ci­ple). With the out­break of war Nakashima re­turned to the US via Ja­pan, where he mar­ried Mar­ion Oka­jima be­fore set­tling in Seat­tle in 1941. It was not a good time to be Ja­panese-Amer­i­can. Like thou­sands of oth­ers with Ja­panese an­ces­try in the US, the ar­chi­tect, his wife and baby daugh­ter, Mira, were sent to an in­tern­ment camp in Idaho in 1942. Con­di­tions in the camp were harsh and took a heavy toll on the fam­ily, but ul­ti­mately Nakashima’s ex­pe­ri­ences there would

prove in­valu­able in his de­vel­op­ment as a crafts­man. While there, he met daiku mas­ter car­pen­ter Gen­taro Hiko­gawa, from whom he learnt tra­di­tional Ja­panese join­ery and, most im­por­tantly, the dis­ci­pline and pa­tience re­quired to be a great wood­worker. Through the spon­sor­ship of for­mer boss An­tonin Ray­mond, the fam­ily was re­leased from the camp in 1943. Ini­tially set­tling on his for­mer em­ployer’s farm in New Hope, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nakashima even­tu­ally bought a nearby par­cel of land where he would de­sign and build his home and work­shop. It is here that, since his death in 1990, his daugh­ter Mira has main­tained his legacy to this day. Nakashima’s il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer in­cluded an ex­hi­bi­tion at New York’s Mu­seum of Modern Art; col­lab­o­ra­tions with Knoll and Wid­di­comb, for whom he de­signed the iconic ‘Conoid’ chair; and count­less pub­lic and pri­vate com­mis­sions, in­clud­ing Nel­son Rock­e­feller’s Ja­panese-style home in Po­can­tico Hills, New York, where he de­signed and crafted more than 200 pieces of cus­tom fur­ni­ture in ex­otic woods, in­clud­ing French olive ash burl, East In­dian lau­rel and Per­sian wal­nut. Along­side mul­ti­ple free edges and com­plex but­ter­fly joints, ever-more ex­otic woods typ­i­fied his later work, con­sid­ered by many to be his best. “My wood is bet­ter now as my work is bet­ter now,” he pro­claimed. There’s in­her­ent no­bil­ity to Ge­orge Nakashima’s work, stem­ming no doubt from his depth of feel­ing for the noble tree. As he once wrote, “It is an art- and soul­sat­is­fy­ing ad­ven­ture to walk in the forests of the world, to com­mune with trees… to bring this liv­ing ma­te­rial to the work bench, ul­ti­mately to give it a sec­ond life.”

“It is an art- and soul-sat­is­fy­ing ad­ven­ture to walk in the forests of the world, to com­mune with trees… to bring this liv­ing ma­te­rial to the work bench”

clock­wise: at the work­shop, show­room and for­mer home of the late de­signer/ar­chi­tect Ge­orge Nakashima in New Hope, Penn­syl­va­nia, is the Conoid Stu­dio, with its ex­per­i­men­tal con­crete roof, built from 1957. A photo of Nakashima taken around 1960. A Ge­orge Nakashima ‘Conoid’ bench seat, first made in 1960. The ex­te­rior of the prop­erty’s show­room, which was built in 1954.

left: the de­signer’s sketch for the ‘ Conoid’ slab cofffff­fee ta­ble, fi­first cre­ated in 1960 for the newly com­pleted Conoid Stu­dio, and here re­alised in English wal­nut. clock­wise from left: in­side the show­room. The chair shop, built in 1956 as a mock-up for the Conoid Stu­dio. The ‘Conoid’ bench seat with ‘Bird Star II’ rug, de­signed by Nakashima in 1959, only pro­duced re­cently when his daugh­ter Mira col­lab­o­rated with a car­pet maker us­ing archived sketches.

from left: the ex­te­rior of the show­room. Ge­orge and his daugh­ter, Mira — her­self now a de­signer who con­tin­ues to run the busi­ness bear­ing her fa­ther’s name — in the work­shop in 1952.

clock­wise from top left: Nakashima in 1946 with his ‘Arm Chair’, ‘Milk House Ta­ble’ and ‘Grass-Seated Chair’. The south­ern faÇade of the Conoid Stu­dio. The ‘Conoid’ chair and end ta­ble.

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