Furniture in Focus: George Nakashima

A Huge American Walnut Table

“Each flitch, each board, each plank can have only one ideal use. The woodworker, applying a thousand skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realize its true potential.”

 

There are perhaps no other furniture makers who are so perfectly in line with the spirit of what we try to do here at Thorogoods as George Nakashima. His respect for the essential beauty of wood as a material; his care and attention when it came to selection of the perfect board; his exacting eye for quality, but also his readiness to see knots, wild grain and unusual features not as defects, but as fundamental features of wood… well, we like to think that he would have felt very at home in our yard!

 

Working in the middle of the 20th century his design practice, with one foot firmly rooted in the ancient past and one balanced on the absolute cutting edge of design, set him apart from many of his contemporaries. As much as he was on the periphery stylistically, he was still at the heart of a movement that would eventually be called “Mid-Century Modern” and his work, though idiosyncratic, has come to define this important moment in the history of furniture design. His design philosophy, which was refined by years spent in training as an architect and extensive world travel, eventually made its way into the book that cemented his reputation as an advocate for natural design; “The Soul of a Tree” has subsequently become a bible for a new movement of craftsmen inspired by a love of the natural beauty of wood.

 

After finishing his training as an architect in the early 1930’s with a master’s from MIT, Nakashima decided to travel the world to immerse himself in the cultures and design traditions of other cultures. Like many young Americans of the 1920’s and 30’s, Nakashima believed that a cultural tour could have only one starting point – Paris – so after selling his car for a steamboat ticket he set off in 1931. He spent a year there living the life of a bourgeois bohemian before setting off to tramp the world again, even spending some time in North Africa (which was insanely fashionable at the time…). Of his globe trotting experiences perhaps the most seminal were the years that he spent working in the architectural practice of Antonin Raymond, which kept a Tokyo office. Being based in his ancestral homeland, Nakashima was able to explore not only Japan’s rich history of design and architecture, but was also able to volunteer to work extensively in India, supervising the construction of an ashram, a kind of spiritual community centered around a guru or teacher. It was in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram that Nakashima had a spiritual awakening of sorts, even receiving a Sanskrit name meaning “one who delights in beauty”. He also had the time and opportunity to experiment with making his own furniture. Returning to the states in 1940 with his new wife and fellow Japanese-American Marion Okajima, he opened a short-lived furniture studio, whose initial successes were cut short by one of the darkest events in recent American history.

 

Following the surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japanese aircraft anti-Japanese sentiment in America, which had been growing for some years, reached a fever pitch. In 1942 the United States interred its citizens of Japanese heritage in camps far from their homes on the pacific coast. George Nakashima was among the 110,000 people sent to these camps, spending a year in camp Minidoka, Idaho from early 1942 onwards. By chance Nakashima was imprisoned alongside Gentaro Hikogawa, a classically trained Japanese daiku or joiner from Shikoku Island. Together Hikogawa and Nakashima set about building furniture to make the Spartan living conditions of the internment camp more bearable, though material for any items had to be stolen or taken from scraps thrown away by the guards. Nails were in particularly short supply, but the techniques of traditional Japanese joinery emphasise the use of clever all-wood joints rather than metal fixings, so the pair were able to create a good deal of furniture despite the challenging conditions. Later in his life Nakashima remarked of his time at Minidoka that “The time was not entirely lost. There was wood, and a very fine Japanese carpenter, so I became his designer and his apprentice at the same time”. In ’43 Nakashima’s former employer Antonin Raymond was able to vouch for Nakashima, securing his release and moving him to his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima would spend the rest of his life there, eventually passing away at the age of 85 in 1990, leaving behind a long legacy of reverence for material, respect for tradition and innovative craftsmanship.

 

To this day Nakashima’s influence can be seen in the popularity of live edge furniture with simple, precise, geometric bases. A particularly noticeable inheritance from Nakashima’s design is the use of butterfly joints (which are sometimes even called Nakashima joints) to reinforce the natural splits in the kind of large boards for which Nakashima always had a special affinity. Whilst he worked in a variety of timbers, Nakashima’s love of American timbers meant that he always returned to them, with a particular love of the black walnut (Juglans nigra) that naturally occurs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. American Black Walnut’s sumptuous colouration and natural lustre make it ideal for Nakashima style furniture, which focuses on the natural beauty of an individual piece of wood’s grain, colour and form.

 

If you’re itching to get your creative juices flowing and make your own piece of Nakashima inspired furniture then you’re in luck! Not only do we have lots of lovely boards of beautiful, unique waney edge timber especially for furniture making, but we are also a specialist stockist for American black walnut from Pennsylvania based mill Horizon wood products, just a short (for America) 5 hour drive from Nakashima’s own studio in New Hope!

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