George Nakashima: Rhapsody in Wood
November 13, 2004 10:21 AM   Subscribe

Spiritual Woodworker. Furniture designer George Nakashima's (1904-1990) exquisite creations merged traditional woodworking techniques with innovative design, resulting in (very expensive) work that demonstrates a high level of craftsmanship coupled with a reinterpretation of modernist design. Nakashima also prided himself on being the "world's first hippie", Hindu Catholic and Japanese druid (.pdf file). The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles pays tribute to this great artist with a unique exhibit. More inside.
posted by matteo (5 comments total)
A nisei, Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington and raised in Seattle. He then embarked on a period of international study and work in France, Japan, and India, in which he worked with Antonin Raymond.
During World War II, Nakashima and his family were incarcerated at Minidoka. He was released in 1943 with the help of his former employer Raymond. He and his family moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where he established his studio.
His commissions include furniture for the home of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
On view at the JANM exhibit are also photographs by Ezra Stoller, such as a wide-angle view of the interior of Nakashima's Conoid Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
posted by matteo at 10:29 AM on November 13, 2004

I almost forgot. from the January issue of House Beautiful magazine:

The biggest obstacle to Nakashima being seen as a figure on a par with Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and other giants of midcentury modernism is that the vocabulary he worked in was later so debased by third-rate imitators. Thus it was difficult to see the master's originals except through the distorting lens of bad approximations. The same thing happened to Mies van der Rohe, whose elegant, minimalist glass-and-steel skyscrapers were knocked off by cut-rate developers out to make a quick buck. In Nakashima's case, his rough-hewn wooden tables and chairs, carefully conceived to bring out the rich natural graining and expressive contours of the native cherry and black walnut he favored, were crudely caricatured in the redwood tree-stump furniture that became an embarrassing 1970s cliche. That "woodbutcher" style effectively butchered Nakashima's contribution in the eyes of an entire generation.

Now, however, with the perspective of time and greater interest in design that transcends cultural boundaries, Nakashima's furniture has at last escaped the stigma of the macrame movement. Like his year-older fellow Nisei (second-generation Japanese-American) Isamu Noguchi, Nakashima possessed what can only be seen as an innate gift for melding Eastern and Western artistic concepts in works that seem fully at home in either hemisphere. As with Noguchi's own furniture designs, Nakashima's pieces assert a powerful sculptural presence that runs counter to the modernist preference for utilitarian objects that fit seamlessly into their rational architectural surroundings.

posted by matteo at 2:32 PM on November 13, 2004

Wonderful, informative post - thanks, matteo. There's a lot of interesting stuff here and I'm still working my way through it! On a side-note, Nakashima was probably interned because he lived on the west coast - note that he moved to the east coast after release. Noguchi, who was based on the east coast to start with, was not interned. He did however volunteer to be interned for a while (at Poston, AZ) to help the inmates with artistic activities. When he found that he didn't like this, it took him a while to extricate himself again.
posted by carter at 4:34 PM on November 13, 2004

Great post. Nakashima did lots of great stuff. Just as a side note though - a friend who worked for a fantastic cabinet maker was charged during his apprenticeship with refinishing a Nakashima bench. Despite Nakashima's insistence on using traditional methods for everything, the bench had clearly been sanded with a random orbital sander.
posted by jmgorman at 5:58 PM on November 13, 2004

There is nothing better than great furniture. Thanks for the post.
posted by rusty at 8:49 PM on November 14, 2004

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