Design Icon: George Nakashima
By Patrick Sisson / Published by Dwell
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A skilled and spiritual craftsman, George Nakashima crafted wood furniture that elevated and showcased natural forms.

Working with a reverence for his material that bordered on spiritual, woodworker and designer George Nakashima (1915-1990) created one of the more influential legacies in furniture in the 20th century. Cutting wood was like cutting diamonds, he once said, a philosophy reflected in his body of work, filled with intricate pieces that preserved and magnified the beauty of every knot and grain. He would often keep boards around his workshop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for years before they would reveal themselves to him.

George Nakashima in his workshop

George Nakashima in his workshop

Nakashima studied architecture at École Américaine des Beaux Arts and M.I.T. and began working in the ‘30s, at one point journeying to India to design an ashram. His work earned him the fitting Sanskrit name, Sundarananda ("one who delights in beauty"). He returned from overseas to set up shop in Seattle in the early ‘40s before, like other Japanese-Americans during WWII, he was interned by the government. While at Camp Minidoka in Idaho, Nakashima met a fellow internee who was a master Japanese craftsman, who taught him traditional practices and philosophies that informed his future work. His career blossomed after the war, when he began creating pieces for companies like Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, as well as his own custom work, such as a 200-piece collection for Nelson Rockefeller’s mansion. His reverence for nature and inner beauty was reflected in one of his last projects, a massive peace altar installed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His designs are still being made by his daughter and the staff at George Nakashima Woodworker.

Splay-Leg Table<br><br>Impressed by the simple elegance and understated forms of his work, Hans and Florence Knoll added Nakashima’s work to their roster. This table was designed in 1946 with a low-sheen finish and live grain patterns. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Splay-Leg Table

Impressed by the simple elegance and understated forms of his work, Hans and Florence Knoll added Nakashima’s work to their roster. This table was designed in 1946 with a low-sheen finish and live grain patterns. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Straight Chair<br><br>Another original Knoll design from 1946, the Straight Chair is Nakashima’s spin on the standard Windsor, incorporating traditional techniques, Nakashima sometimes called himself a “Japanese Shaker,” in reference to his fusion of classic, Modernist and Shaker styles. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Straight Chair

Another original Knoll design from 1946, the Straight Chair is Nakashima’s spin on the standard Windsor, incorporating traditional techniques, Nakashima sometimes called himself a “Japanese Shaker,” in reference to his fusion of classic, Modernist and Shaker styles. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Conoid Bench<br><br>An intricate example of Nakashima placing minimal adornments on the wood, merely capturing it, preserving it and giving it a second life. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Conoid Bench

An intricate example of Nakashima placing minimal adornments on the wood, merely capturing it, preserving it and giving it a second life. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Mira Chair<br><br>These three-legged chairs were designed in 1950 for George’s daughter, Mira, who now runs George Nakashima Woodworker, the company that carries on the Nakashima legacy. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Mira Chair

These three-legged chairs were designed in 1950 for George’s daughter, Mira, who now runs George Nakashima Woodworker, the company that carries on the Nakashima legacy. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Conoid Table<br><br>Pieces from this series, named after Nakashima’s Conoid workshop, which he opened in 1957, focus on free-edge forms, respecting and conforming to the natural shape of the wood, and often employ cantilever technology. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Conoid Table

Pieces from this series, named after Nakashima’s Conoid workshop, which he opened in 1957, focus on free-edge forms, respecting and conforming to the natural shape of the wood, and often employ cantilever technology. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

George Nakashima with his daughter Mira in his workshop

George Nakashima with his daughter Mira in his workshop

Slab Coffee Table<br><br>An example of one of Nakashima’s most iconic designs, this large piece was crafted from walnut. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Slab Coffee Table

An example of one of Nakashima’s most iconic designs, this large piece was crafted from walnut. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Asa-No-Ha Lamp<br><br>These intricately patterned lamps were created to illuminate his work at a show overseas. Some of these reside in the Rockefeller’s mansion. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Asa-No-Ha Lamp

These intricately patterned lamps were created to illuminate his work at a show overseas. Some of these reside in the Rockefeller’s mansion. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Chigaindana Shelf<br><br>Initially built for Widdicomb-Mueller in the ‘60s, these Mondrian-like forms draw inspiration from Japanese architecture. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Chigaindana Shelf

Initially built for Widdicomb-Mueller in the ‘60s, these Mondrian-like forms draw inspiration from Japanese architecture. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Patrick Sisson

@patricksisson

During the course of his career writing about music and design, Patrick Sisson has made Stefan Sagmeister late for a date and was scolded by Gil Scott-Heron for asking too many questions. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Nothing Major, Wax Poetics, Stop Smiling and Chicago Magazine.

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