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

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - Interiors -

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 (19051990) 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.

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 Ja­pane­seAmer­i­cans, 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.

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 orig- in­al­ity 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.

■ nakashima­wood­

Ge­orge Nakashima de­scribed him­self as a wood­worker; his work dis­plays a gen­uine mod­esty, a beau­ti­ful mea­sure, and above all, a re­spect of the tim­ber, bow­ing to nat­u­ral knots, fis­sures, splits and colour.

Conoid Bench by Ge­orge Nakashima (1905-1990).

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