Versatile American designer and craftsman George Nakashima connected masterful carpentry, a sculptural sensibility, and spirituality in his exceptional designs.
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.
His New Hope Studio, still open to the public today, embodies this work.
George Nakashima, his wife Marion and Mira were imprisoned in an Idaho internment camp during the war. It was there that he learnt traditional Japanese woodworking skills from another prisoner.
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.
Nakashima’s belief was that when you made furniture, you created a new life for a tree. His work showcases the natural beauty of wood and was made without mass production.
In Japan he absorbed the philosophy of Mingei – the idea of design to be inexpensive and for everyday use by ordinary people.
“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.”
Japanese philosopher and art historian Soetsu Yanagi published an essay, “What Is Folk Craft?,” that would become a foundational text of the mingei (folk craft) movement that reshaped Japanese aesthetics in the mid-20th century.
In his writing, Yanagi proposed a revindication of “a provincial industry” of handmade utilitarian objects that are “indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people, that are used in commonplace settings, that are produced in large numbers, and that are inexpensive.”
He felt these folk crafts were fundamental to the restoration of beauty in a world drifting toward soulless mechanization.
Nakashima’s belief was that when you made furniture, you created a new life for a tree.
Nakashima dedicated his entire life to designing and producing a limited release of custom furniture,
individual pieces of art that earned him a place at the forefront of the studio furniture movement