George Nakashima’s visions for wood

Exceptional free-edge headboard, English walnut with five rosewood ‘butterfly’ joints, 42 x 104½ inches, realized $40,000 in 2007. Image courtesy Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Trees generally live short lives, perhaps 200 to 300 years at most. Yet George Nakashima (1905-1990), a luminary of the American Craft Movement, believed they need not die. His furniture not only celebrates the beauty of their wood and honors their spirit but gives them new life.

After studying forestry and earning an architectural degree at MIT, Nakashima sampled artistic life in Paris and Japan, his ancestral homeland. Then he joined an ashram in India. As disciple, architect and furniture maker, he was given the name Sundarananda, meaning “one who delights in beauty.” Here too, the young man, inspired by Eastern philosophy and love of nature, vowed to continue woodworking on a small scale.

American black walnut, curved Captain’s Chair marked ‘Bennett,’ 28¼ x 24¼ x 17½ inches, 1963, realized $1,700 in 2014. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

In 1941, Nakashima set up shop in Seattle, Washington, building furniture from straight-edge planks obtained at lumber yards. During World War II, while forcibly interned in a relocation center with other American-Japanese, he studied traditional skills with a master woodworker. He also designed rooms and housing from materials at hand – scrap lumber, packing matter and desert bitterbrush.

Upon his release, Nakashima established a woodworking shop near New Hope, Pennsylvania, initially acquiring lumberyard discards, as well as logs off his land. Comfortable, curved, organically designed captain chairs and straight chairs, inspired by Japanese and Shaker traditions, were among his first works. Three-legged Mira Chairs and four-legged high chairs, both designed for his young daughter, followed. The popular squared Cushion Chairs, New Chair Rockers and small triangular side tables appeared soon after.

Minguren coffee table featuring redwood root burl top with sap grain detail, numerous fissures, free edges and four black walnut butterflies beneath signed with client name, including copy of original invoice and authentication letter from Mira Nakashima, realized $130,000 in 2016. Image courtesy Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Though Nakashima’s pieces may now seem conservative, they were quite innovative in their day. His award-winning Conoid Chairs, for instance, which feature sculpted, cantilevered seats, spindle-backs and horizontal “feet” that glide over carpeting, combine Japanese traditions with architectural elements. His bold, naturalistic Minguren series, which features free-form pieces worked in highly figured walnut enhanced with exotic woods, is also architecturally inspired.

As his artistic vision developed, Nakshima often sought mature oak, mahogany, maple, walnut and redwood trees in forests worldwide. Older woods, he found, “offer a complexity and richness of grain that can only evolve with time, a certain number of seasons and storms … ”

Square Cushion Chair, featuring walnut, mortise-and-tenon construction, circa 1959, 30½ x 24 x 31 inches, including copy of original 1958/1959 receipt, realized $3,400 in 2009. Image courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Then, on the spot, he decided how to cut them. Cutting trees was like faceting diamonds, he explained. “Cut one way and you get something good, cut another and you lose it all.”

When cut, some of his boards revealed cracks, cavities, contours, knots or unexpected bursts of color. Others revealed storm marks, bark pockets, or root burls, spectacular diseased growths liable to crumble if sliced incorrectly. Some, Nakashima trimmed, creating edges smooth and straight. Others, he left as found, rough, rustic, free-edged.

Walnut and hickory Conoid Chair, signed with client name, 35¼ x 21 x 22 inches, 1980, realized $3,000 in 2014. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Before use, however, these raw boards were air-dried, stacked and stored – often for years. In some cases, Nakashima waited up to a decade for a particular piece to “speak,” for its form and colors to reveal its destiny. Only then, “applying a thousand skills,” did he shape it, celebrating its innate beauty, its soul.

Though George Nakashima’s later works are clearly organic and sculptural, many bear characteristics of his earlier, utilitarian ones. He often stabilized large, cracked pieces, destined to become tabletops or headboards, for instance, with wooden “butterfly” joinery in contrasting shades. He also balanced thick-cut, fissured, burled, tree-like slabs, astounding specimens of nature, atop simple, airy, architectural bases.

Walnut triangular side table. tapered bowed peg legs with thru tendons, 21 x 26½ x 22 inches, realized $2,500 in 2013. Image courtesy Uniques & Antiques and LiveAuctioneers

Nakashima’s timeless, meticulously crafted creations have fared well through the years, becoming more beautiful with use. They also remain extremely collectible. Furthermore, many pieces, once owned by first or next-generation clients, include documentation like original invoices, order cards, catalogs or client signatures.

Today, “Nakashimas” enhance homes, traditional to contemporary, around the world. Like the trees he honored, George Nakashima’s legacy lives on.

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