George Nakashima calls himself simply woodworker. Born in 1905 in Spokane (Washington, USA) to Japanese immigrants, he is one of the most famous figures of the American Craft Studio movement. As a follower of the Mingei movement, he swam against the tide and created a design without the industrial companies: he chose each piece of wood and shaped free-form works with an expressive sincerity, sublimating the grain and form as much as the imperfections.
Financing his education through summer jobs on the railroad and in salmon canneries, he studied architecture at the University of Washington and then took postgraduate studies at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) before finishing his degree in Fontainebleau (France) in 1928.
He then travelled for seven years, : the first year, he stopped to Paris, then he settled in Japan for five years and finally finished his tour in India. In Japan, he visited his family, including his mother’s lands in Kamata. He also worked in Tokyo architectural offices of Czech-born Antonín Reimann (1888-1976), an American who had come to Japan to work with Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) in the early 1920s and then stayed on. George Nakashima was in Japan during Mingei movement’s creation and he became one of its faithful followers: he thus retained the return to traditions and ancient forms and he became fascinated by uniqueness and irregularity.
He returned to the United States where he married Marion Okajima in Los Angeles and the couple moved to Seattle in 1941. George Nakashima was very critical of the contemporary architecture, which he found uninspiring. So he finally decided to start designing wooden furniture. During the Second World War and because of the anti-Japanese climate in the United States, he went to the concentration camp in Idaho after the attack on Pearl Harbor: it was during this tragic part of his life that he met the Japanese-trained carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa, from whom he learned a lot. His career would thus begin after the war, with sparkles.
He finally settled in New Hope, Pennsylvania, home of the American Craft Studio.
His practice stands out in the contemporary landscape. Indeed, he praised the work of the cabinetmaker and return to traditional methods of manufacture; he also criticized the dehumanizing effects of the machine-made, like William Morris (1834-1896) at the end of the previous century. His approach is very different from the contemporary industrial vibes and his rare collaborations with American or Japanese furniture manufacturers, like Knoll or Sakakura Company, are not well mastered, neither for him, neither for the market. He did not create for the emerging consumer society: he focused his mind on wood, its soul, its poetry. He started alone in his garage on Aquetong Road. The small family business then grew and he surrounded himself with a few assistants: he directed them and they interpreted his drawings like a “première d’atelier” in luxury fashion world.
During a lecture in 1977, he said: “my relationship to furniture and construction is basically my dialogue with a tree, with a complete and psychic empathy. ” According to the designer, the material must speak for itself without technique forcing anything: only the hand-work must humbly sublimate what is already present, from the grain to the imperfections, from the shapes to the veins; he is a true heir of the Mingei movement and a lover of his samurai origins. His design is based on series, as the “Conoid” and “Minguren” ones prove, but each piece remains unique because he chose each word board and then he always worked respectfully of its initial integrity: this is what makes George Nakashima’s furniture wonderful.
His reputation is established since the 1950s and the excellence of his creations is no longer to be proven. His famous “freeform” pieces are wooded sculptures which an incredible sensitivity that seduce rich and important clients, such as the Rockefeller family.
George Nakashima’s designs are more free and complex during his last years. His wooden works are perfectly not perfect: he follows the natural curves of the material and sometimes adds his now famous butterfly-shaped clips, like stitches, in the manner of a kintsugi. Famous since the 1950s, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York dedicated an exhibition to him in 1951 and he received the Gold Medal of Craftsmanship from the American Institute of Architects in 1952. His work will never die and his daughter Mira continues her father’s legacy to this day.