Focus on George Nakashima

Design Miami/
May 23, 2013 12:36PM

George Nakashima was a Japanese-American woodworker born in Spokane, Washington, who studied architecture at the esteemed École Américaine des Beaux Arts outside of Paris, and then received a Master’s degree in Architecture from M.I.T. Though this architectonic training would impact his woodwork and style, it was perhaps his forced internment during World War II which had one of the greatest effects.

There, Nakashima learned from a man named Gentaro Hikogawa about using traditional Japanese hand tools, joinery techniques, and the use of found materials. The gestalt accruement of his training, experience, and talent would lead him to become a major figure in the American Craft movement.

At this year’s Design Miami/ Basel, Sebastian + Barquet – a NYC-based specialist in post-war American and European design – will be holding a solo show of George Nakashima’s furniture. Six of Nakashima’s canonical works will be presented at the fair in a landscape modeled on his Pennsylvania studio.

The Minguren coffee table being shown by Sebastian + Barquet at Design Miami/ Basel was made out of a rejected log from the Thompson Mahogany Company in Philadelphia. The wood is taken from a root burl – which is the deformed outgrowth of a tree root usually caused by injury or virus – an element that Nakashima started employing in the 1970s. The table contains Nakashima’s signature free edges, accepting and encouraging of the natural subtleties of the wood.  A single butterfly key links a natural fissure in this naturally grained, elegant work.

The “Kent Hall” lamp is considered one of the most significant works by Nakashima. Created for Dr. Arthur and Mrs. Evelyn Krosnick in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the lamp was a replacement for the original. The couple, who were friends and patrons of Nakashima, had experienced a catastrophic fire in 1989 that swept through their home and destroyed their collection of over 100 works by the woodworker. Nakashima, who was 84 at the time, required the assistance of his daughter to oversee and execute the replacements. Those replacements – this Kent Hall lamp included – are considered improvements upon the already acclaimed work.

This grass seat chair is a prototype of the long line that Nakashima and his Wood Worker’s Studio would go on to create. Created in 1947, the chair has a wider angle than is typical of his later grass seaters. The use of dowel joinery, at the time of its creation, was considered passé and anachronistic. But in fact, the use of dowel joinery was forward-looking in its re-engagement with the structural properties of design. The grass seat was woven by his wife, Marion Nakashima, and reflects their eastern influences, as the lightness of the weaving lightens the stark walnut.

An extremely rare redwood root burl was used for this coffee table. Nakashima worked almost exclusively with hard wood, but due to the redwood burl’s dramatic figure and rouge hue, it is the only softwood that the designer decided to use. The table, which is one of the earliest versions of that design, rests on a pronouncedly architectonic Arlyn base. Like the other pieces that will be present at the fair, the work is imbued with a historical narrative tied to the life of Nakashima: the Arlyn base was given its name after the designers’ aforementioned friends and buyers, Arthur and Evelyn Krosnick.

The Conoid line of chairs is named after Nakashima’s self-designed studio. The six Conoid chairs on view at Design Miami/ Basel 2013 epitomize the woodoworker’s innovation and extraordinary technical skill. Signature hickory spindles are combined with floor runners that are cantilevered – a combination which provides a leaning optical effect and an attentive mix of modernism’s structure with a rural, from-the-woods vernacular.

A dining table will be shown by Sebastian + Barquet which was made out of another rejected log from the Thompson Mahogany Company. An unhhindered, naturally-edged top rests on an architectural base. The top is made from a now rare and depleted English Walnut, which has a lighter hue than the base’s American Black Walnut. Also to be shown is a cross-legged desk – a rectilinear unit in the Conoid style – and a trestle dining table made out of two slabs of English Walnut. Each of the pieces being shown have a story to tell, and each piece is a passage from George Nakashima’s long, accomplished, and sometimes harrowing life.

Rob Goyanes

Design Miami/