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George Nakashima: At peace in nature

by Janet Purcell

George Nakashima was declared “A National Treasure” by the Japanese Emperor in 1983. He was a spiritual man who cared about the soul of a tree and believed that a woodworker owed a sacrificed tree a noble life as a useful, beautiful object. He believed that each plank cut from a tree had only one ideal use and it is the woodworker’s responsibility to find that use and shape the wood to realize its true potential.

Now, fourteen years after his death, George Nakashima’s work ethic and spiritual beliefs are continuing in the family-run woodworking shops nestled on a south-facing slope on Aquetong Road in New Hope.

Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, who worked by her father’s side for twenty years as his assistant and collaborator, is now the creative director of the studio. Under her guidance, the studio continues to produce furniture made from her father’s designs and from designs she has developed using his techniques and incorporating his philosophy and beliefs. A handful of dedicated craftsmen, some who have worked there for forty years, still remain faithful to George Nakashima’s aesthetic. What began as a one-man operation in 1943, now employs ten woodworkers.

George Nakashima’s childhood was spent in the Pacific Northwest where he developed a love of nature and drew on the sense of peace that surrounded him there. He earned degrees in architecture from the University of Washington and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied further in Europe, traveled extensively and, in 1937, began working as an architect in Tokyo.

Subsequently, he traveled to Pondicherry, India to design and oversee the construction of Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

"My dad’s experience in the ashram influenced him—the Eastern theo-centric rather than ego-centric,” Mira Nakashima says. “He believed if you surrender your ego to the Divine, the Divine will give you power."

When he left the ashram, Mr. Nakashima returned to Japan where he met Marion Okajima, whom he would later marry.

Becoming disillusioned with modern architecture, however, he turned to furniture design and woodworking and in 1941, just as he was becoming established, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He, his wife and newborn daughter Mira were taken, along with all those of Japanese ancestry, to an internment camp in Idaho.

When they were released in 1943, the family traveled to New Hope where, after a year working on a chicken farm, George Nakashima set up a studio and woodworking shop.

"He designed and built every building on the property. He did all the planting, all the landscaping,” his daughter says. “I really don’t know how he did it, but he was always very calm about it. He had so much subtle energy. It was amazing."

He also had a dream—to offer a Table For Peace to each continent of the world. He envisioned the Tables, also called Peace Altars, as “a symbol, a token of man’s aspirations for a creative and beautiful peace, free of political overtones; an expression of love for his fellow man.” He saw the Tables as a gathering place for meditation, prayer and peace discussions.

The first Peace Altar was made from the bole of a walnut tree, two adjoining six-foot wide slabs twelve feet long and weighing almost one ton. It was consecrated and installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1986. The second Table for Peace, built from the same black walnut tree to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations, was presented at The Hague Appeal for Peace in May of 1999 and is now at its permanent site in the Russian Academy of Art in Moscow. And the third Table, built in 1996, stands in the “City of Peace” Auroville, which sprang from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry where George Nakashima was once a disciple.

Other countries have expressed interest and recent developments suggest a fourth Table may be sited on another continent in the not-too-far-distant future.

In addition to his Tables for Peace, other major Nakashima commissions include the Church of Christ The King in Katsura, Kyoto, Japan; The Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico; interiors for Columbia University and furnishings for the late New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s home.

Nakashima’s works are represented in the world’s most prestigious collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, the New York Metropolitan Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Displayed in the Nakashima Showroom and the Conoid Studio are examples of his furniture which was designed with the contours of the human body in mind—long before ergonomics was a popular word. His cantilevered Conoid chairs have hickory spindles and a slanted back. The seats jut out and are supported by only two legs that rest on blade-like feet. Not only are the chairs visually intriguing, they are comfortable.

According to Mira Nakashima, her father was in his workshop every day working from what she describes as “pretty sketchy sketches.”

“Because he was there every day, he had the luxury of making changes when they were needed. It’s a real mark of genius that he could make furniture that worked that way. Like Mozart, he had it all inside,” she says.

In her book, Nature, Form, & Spirit (which was published December 1, 2003 by Harry N. Abrams and sold out by January, 2004) Mira Nakashima surveys her father’s life, his work and the influence he had, and still has, on contemporary design. Now in its second printing, the book is illustrated with family photographs and working drawings as well as recent full-color photos of many Nakashima classic pieces. Publication was timed to coincide with the release of a full-length documentary film on his life and an exhibition at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. The exhibition will travel to Sun Valley, Idaho and then to the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles in September.

According to George Nakashima’s grandson, Satoru “Ru” Amagasu, collectors of Nakashima vintage pieces fly in from all over the world to attend auctions where the items are offered.

Design appointments are made for clients who want newly-crafted pieces. “We work together picking out the wood and designing the furniture,” Mira Nakashima says and refers to “a trio of energy,” the relationship between the artist, the wood and the client. “It’s when the client understands the wood and what the artist can do with it,” she says.

A visit to the Nakashima Reception House and Conoid Studio is an educational, and also a peaceful experience. There are fourteen buildings on the nine-acre property, four of which you may visit on a self-guided tour every Saturday. The buildings, all built by hand by George Nakashima, are all constructed of wood and local fieldstone, all face south for a solar advantage. They are reached by gravel and stone paths that wind through mature shade trees and cherry trees that in the springtime turn the sloping land into a froth like pink cotton candy.

In autumn, the Nakashima woods are ablaze with color and in winter the land is quiet and the tracery of limbs and branches of the trees Nakashima so loved are easily seen and enjoyed.

George Nakashima surrounded himself in beauty and this place he called home offered him that in every season of the year.

In the introduction to his book, The Soul Of A Tree. A Woodworker’s Reflections, George Nakashima says, “We work with the boards from these trees, to fulfill their yearning for a second life, to release their richness and beauty. From these planks we fashion objects useful to man and, if nature wills, things of beauty. In any case, these objects harmonize the rhythms of nature to fulfill the tree’s destiny and ours.”

Tours of 15 or more people can be arranged as schedule permits. Donations of a minimum of $10 per person are given to the Nakashima Foundation For Peace.

Self-guided visits are welcome every Saturday from 1:00 to 4:30 p.m. except for holidays and two weeks in mid-August. The address is 1847 Aquetong Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania. All visitors are asked to wear comfortable shoes that can easily be removed when visiting the Showroom and Conoid Studio.

For information or to arrange a group tour, call 215-862-2272, or visit www.nakashimawoodworker.com.

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