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"George Nakashima is a national treasure. He has an extraordinary feeling for wood and all its fantastic variations."
George Nakashima was a master woodworker and furniture maker whose spiritual mission was to bring out the character of his wood. Trained as an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he worked in Antonin Raymond's firm in Japan. Nakashima discovered his calling as a furniture craftsman while working at a monastery in India. Raymond brought Nakashima to his farm outside New Hope in 1943, after sponsoring his release from a wartime internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry. In 1945 Nakashima purchased a plot of land in New Hope, where he built his home, as well as a furniture factory, which has since expanded into twelve buildings. Enormously successful, he opened factories in Japan and India too. Nakashima designed every piece of furniture his firm produced. He allowed the form of the wood to dictate the shape of the piece he would design. He maximized imperfections in the wood and fixed cracks with butterfly joints, in this way allowing flaws to enhance the piece's distinctive beauty. Nakashima's most famous work was his Altar of Peace, a shrine at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.
Photograph of George Nakashima by Jack Rosen, 1980s. Courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
Education and Training
University of Washington, Bachelor of Architecture, Seattle, Washington, 1929
ɣole Americaine des Beaux Arts, Diploma, Fountainebleau, France, 1928
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Master of Architecture, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1930
Travels to France, 1933
Travels to Japan, 1933-1934
Draftsman, Antonin Raymond, A.I.A. Architect, Tokyo, Japan, c. 1936
Teachers and Influences
Junzo, one of the architects in Tokyo, taught him the traditional customs of Japan while he was working for the architectural firm of Antonin Raymond.
A Japanese carpenter at a internment camp in Idaho taught him carpentry.
Ben Shahn was a friend who visited the Nakashima studios in New Hope on numerous occasions.
Connection to Bucks County
In 1943 George Nakashima and his family moved onto architect Antonin Raymond's farm near New Hope after Raymond sponsored their release from an internment camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry. Nakashima and his family lived on Raymond's farm near New Hope for two years. In 1945, Nakashima purchased a lot of land in New Hope where he built a stone house and a furniture-making compound, which has since expanded into twelve buildings.
Colleagues and Affiliations
George Nakashima was a colleague of architect Antonin Raymond and his wife Noémi Raymond. His daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, worked with him in his furniture business since 1970 and continues making furniture in his tradition. Nakashima was also a friend of painter William A. Smith.
Major Solo Exhibitions
Contemporary Furniture by Nakashima, Philadelphia Art Alliance, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1951
Craftsmanship Medal Winner, American Institute of Architects, New York, New York, 1952
A Comprehensive Exhibit, Parry Barn, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 1963
Tea and Tranquillity, Wallace Laboratory, Cranberry, New Jersey, 1964 Retrospective, American Craft Museum, New York, New York, 1988
Major Group Exhibitions
Kikkoman Shoyu International, Grand Central Station, New York, 1962
Odakyu HALC, Tokyo, Japan, 1968, 1970, 1973, 1978
Contemporary Furniture 1925-1975, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1976
Deep Arts Festival, Bedminster, Pennsylvania, 1979
Design Since 1945, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , 1983
Japan: Dynasty '83, John Wanamaker, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1983
Bucks Fever 1988, Dublin, Pennsylvania
Objects of Desire: Treasures from Private Collections, Michener Art Museum, New Hope, Pennsylvania, 2005-2006
An Evolving Legacy: Twenty Years of Collecting at the James A. Michener Art Museum, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania, 2009-2010
Altar for Peace, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York
George Nakashima Memorial Reading Room, Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Japanese Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
Altar for Peace, Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York, New York, 1986
Nelson A. Rockefeller's Japanese house (furniture and interiors), Tarrytown, New York
Cross, Steven Rockefeller, Middlebury, Vermont, 1990; Japanese Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art , New York, New York
"Each tree, each part of each tree has its own particular destiny, its own special yearning to be fulfilled. We work this material to fulfill this yearning of nature to find its destiny, to give this absolute inanimate object a second life, to release its richness, its beauty, to read its history and its life."
The heart of Nakashima's philosophy of design was his reverence for the trees from which he crafted his furniture. His spiritual closeness to nature was derived from his Japanese heritage and from a childhood spent near the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Working at a Hindu monastery in India, Nakashima realized that he could best serve nature through woodworking. Each tree, Nakashima believed, has its own character and soul and that it is the craftsman's mission to express this essence. To achieve this, the designer must subordinate his ego to that of the tree, like a thirteenth-century mason building the cathedral at Chartres, allowing himself to be anonymous in the service of hallowed beauty.
Nakashima obtained wood from across the globe. He preferred to work with flawed lumber because its gnarls and worm holes, and the cracks he splinted with butterfly joints, lent a distinctive beauty to the furniture. Examining each piece of wood, he carefully chose where to cut. After sawing with the grain to preserve the wood's rough edge, Nakashima air-dried each plank for two years before a master craftsman shaped it into furniture. In his lifetime, Nakashima designed every piece that his firm produced, creating a lyrical blend of Shaker and Zen styles that gave new life to his trees.
George Nakashima, 1957. Photograph by Jack Rosen. Courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
"[George Nakashima] is a businessman, but not the usual kind. He doesn't want to get bigger or draw raves on Wall Street. He deplores a culture that measures value only by money."
George Nakashima's meteoric rise from farm hand to owner of a multi-national corporation was a real-life Horatio Alger story. After Antonin Raymond sponsored Nakashima's release from a Japanese-American internment camp in 1943, the young architect lived on Raymond's farm. After saving money for two years, Nakashima was able to pay a small sum, supplemented by his service as a carpenter, in exchange for three acres of land in New Hope. Living with his wife and young daughter in a tent, he built a stone house and a workshop. Over the years, Nakashima expanded his plot to 35 acres, and his compound to twelve buildings, later opening large plants in Japan and India. His customers have included large universities, rich corporations, and celebrities.
George Nakashima's resourcefulness enabled him to make the most of inopportune situations. Sent by Antonin Raymond to design a monastery in India, Nakashima discovered, through meditation, that his vocation was woodworking. Confined in an internment camp during World War II, he befriended a fellow inmate, a master carpenter, and studied furniture design with him. When the young craftsman left this camp, his goal was clear, and his extraordinary vision and creativity enabled him to reach it.
George Nakashima in his studio. Photograph by Jack Rosen. Courtesy of the James A. Michener Art Museum.
George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree, New York, 1981
Monastery of Christ in the Desert, architecture, Abiqui, New Mexico
Church of Christ the King of Katsura, Kyoto, Japan
Draftsman, St. Paul Church, Karuizawa, Japan, c. 1936
La Soledad, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico
Interior, Columbia University, New York, New York
Interior, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts
Interior, International Paper Corporation
Teaching and Professional Appointments
Teacher, integrated woodworking methods, India and Japan, 1960s
Fellow, American Craft Council, New York, New York, 1979
Scholarship for Architectural Studies, Fountainebleau, France, 1928
Gold Medal for Craftsmanship, American Institute of Architects, 1952
Silver Medal of Honor in Design and Craftsmanship, Architectural League of New York, 1960
Gold Medal, and title Japanese-American of the Biennium in the Field of the Arts, San Fransisco, 1980
Hazlett Memorial Award, Excellence in the Arts in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Council of Arts, 1981
Third Order of the Sacred Treasure, Japanese government, 1983
First Award for Excellence in the Arts, Art Matters, 1987
Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, University of Washington, 1990
George and his son Kevin Nakashima
George Nakashima and his family
George Nakashima with wood for the Peace Altar, St. John the Divine
George Nakashima Memorial Reading Room
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