Born in Spokane, Wash., to immigrant Japanese parents of Samurai lineage, Nakashima was the firstborn son of a newspaper reporter. As an Eagle Scout, he hiked in the Cascade Mountains, where he became enchanted by towering hemlocks and Douglas firs.
“Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny, its own special yearning to be fulfilled,” he later wrote. “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.”
Nakashima studied architecture in Paris, worked in Tokyo and spent two years in India as a yoga disciple of Sri Aurobindo after he volunteered to design structures and furniture there without pay. At the ashram, he was given the name Sundarananda, which means “one who delights in beauty.”
On the eve of World War II, he returned home to the United States. In 1942, Nakashima and his family were interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans in Idaho, where he apprenticed himself to an elderly Japanese furniture maker.
After the war, they moved to an artists’ colony in New Hope, Pa., where Nakashima would spend the rest of his long and productive life. Today, his workshop remains vibrant with the creations of his talented designer daughter, Mira Nakashima.
Nakashima freeform furniture designs are highly prized, and many examples are displayed at museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, and the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo.
At auction, Nakashima furniture entered the six-figure realm years ago. A dining table sold for $129,250 at a June 2004 sale at a West Coast auction house, at the time setting a world record. The massive work – 8 feet in diameter – was crafted in the 1960s from an English oak log and featured natural fissures, an intricate base of clustered braces and butterfly joinery in East Indian laurel wood.
In October 2007, a coffee table in the Minguren I, a design typified by a freeform maple burl top, single rosewood butterfly key and solid frame, and a walnut coffee table in the same form each fetched $144,000 at the Sollo Rago Modern sale in Lambertville, New Jersey.
Searching LiveAuctioneers.com is the fastest, most efficient way to locate George Nakashima furniture, some of which is affordable to the majority of collectors. For example, a George Nakashima freeform coffee table will be offered in Showplace Antique Center’s Aug. 9 auction in New York, with Internet live bidding through LiveAuctioneers.com. Click here to view their entire catalog or to sign up to bid absentee or live via the Internet on auction day.
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Catherine Saunders-Watson contributed to this report, which contains excerpts from Eileen Smith’s article on Nakashima furniture that appeared in the January 2008 issue of Style Century Magazine.
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