George Nakashima was a great American artisan and designer who combines American and Japanese traditions in the manufacture of wooden furniture in his work.
Born in Spokane (USA) in a family of Japanese immigrants. For the first two years, he studied at the University of Washington with a degree in forestry, and then was an architect who trained at the American School of Fine Arts (École Américaine de Beaux-Arts) in Paris. In 1929, he received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington, and in 1930 a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a short work in the specialty at the Long Island State Park Commission, Nakashima goes on a world tour, during which he lingers for a long time in Paris, where he gets acquainted with the architecture of Le Corbusier. He was particularly impressed with the construction of the Swiss pavilion on the Paris campus. In 1934, Nakashima came to the homeland of his ancestors, in Japan, and began to enthusiastically study the culture and religion of this country.
In Japan, George Nakashima joins the bureau of Antonin Raymond, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and a pioneer of the “modern movement” in Japanese architecture. At this time, many young architects who later became famous work in Raymond’s workshop. In particular, Kunio Maekawa, who recently returned from France, where he trained with Le Corbusier. In 1936, Nakashima, as an employee of the bureau Antonin Raymond, went to Puducherry (India) to supervise the construction of the Golkonda hostel in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The communal building was designed by Antonin Raymond, and Nakashima was the author of the furniture in it. This is the first furniture he designed. During his Indian journey, Nakashima lived in the Ashram as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, who gave him the name Sundarananda. After finishing work, Nakashima refused a fee for it.
In 1939, George Nakashima returned to Japan, Antonin Raymond at that time already lived in the United States. After short work on a joint project with Kunio Maekawa, Nakashima left Japan and moved to America with his fiancée Marion Okajima in 1940. The next year they got married.
The couple settled in Los Angeles. Nakashima joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s office and supervised the construction of the buildings that Wright designed for California customers. In 1941, having moved to Seattle, he opened his first carpentry workshop on the territory of the Catholic mission Maryknoll and, in gratitude for this, gives craft lessons to boys, wards of the mission.
In March 1942, along with many other Japanese-born Americans, Nakashima and his family were interned in the Minidoka camp. Working as an architect in the camp, Nakashima collaborated with Gentaro Kenneth Hikogawa (1902 – 1963), an experienced carpenter who taught him a lot: he showed how to combine wooden parts accepted in the Japanese craft tradition and unknown in European and taught how to use Japanese carpentry tools. Later, working with wood, Nakashima preferred to use Japanese instruments.
In 1943, thanks to the efforts of friends, primarily Antonin Raymond, Nakashima was released from the camp and settled on Raymond’s New Hope Farm, which at that time was the center of research and experimentation (including furniture design) for several years that Raymond spent with his Naomi’s wife and Japanese and American students. In 1946, Nakashima bought a plot of land in Soulbury, near New Hope, where he built a house and a workshop. There he lived and worked his whole future life.
Nakashima made his own furniture for private orders and, in addition, designed it for mass production on the orders of the Noll factories (1946 – 1954) and Viddikomb (1957 – 1961). Nakashima furniture was very popular in the USA in the 50s and 60s. He became famous for objects from unedged boards, often sawn from the butt and rhizomes, with visible seals and fibrous nodes in the section. He fastened the cracks on the boards with his famous bow ties. With his passion for collectors, Nakashima searched and bought firewood for his work around the world. To think about the age and fate of a tree, looking at the structure of its fibers, was for him a meditative practice, like those he had met in Japan and India.
In 1964, at the invitation of the sculptor Masayuki Nagare, George Nakashima joined the Japanese Association of Artisans Sanuki Minguren. Later, in the city of Kagawa, where the headquarters of this association was located, a workshop for the production of licensed furniture Nakashima was opened.
Having become a craftsman, Nakashima sometimes appeared in the previous role of an architect. He designed several church buildings in the United States and abroad, in particular the Catholic Church of Christ the King in Katsura (Kyoto, Japan), built by the Maryknoll mission.
In subsequent years, George Nakashima had a dream about the altars of the world. He intended to make it from boards sawn from logs of huge diameter, and set them on every continent. The first Altar of the world (and the only one that he made with his own hands) was made in 1986 from the trunk of an English walnut sawn on Long Island. It is located in the Cathedral of St. John (St. John the Divine) in New York. The second, after the death of the master, was made in his workshop in 1995 for the Russian Academy of Arts. The third – in 2014, for the Sri Aurobindo ashram, the one whose building Nakashima had once built.
George Nakashima was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects (1952), the Gold Medal of the League of Japanese-American Citizens (1980) and The Order of the Sacred Treasure of the third degree (1983).
George Nakashima’s workshops in New Hope and Kagawa still produce some of the furniture models that he designed. His estate in Soulbury and a workshop in Takamatsu (Japan) became museums. Items of George Nakashima are stored in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum.