George Nakashima and Sri Aurobindo

Spiritualism through Design

In a 1985 National Geographic video interview, George Nakashima proclaims that he’s the “world’s original hippie.” But he’s also identified as a Japanese Druid. And some claim his work is heavily influenced by Shaker austerity. These spiritual philosophies could be seen as contradictory, but their common thread is the act of resignation – a sense of humility that carries through Nakashima’s craft and his treatment of, and communion with, wood. Nakashima adopted this position of selflessness as a student of the Hindu teacher Sri Aurobindo.

He first met Aurobindo while working at architect Antonin Raymond’s Tokyo office. As an architect himself, Nakashima oversaw the design and construction of a dormitory for Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry, India in 1937. There, Nakashima also created his first furniture pieces including cots, stools and storage for the finished project, most of which sadly, were not used.

Living at the ashram, Nakashima began practicing Sri Aurobindo’s “Internal Yoga,” which called for the continual recognition, through the psychological discipline of Yoga, of a collective consciousness free from the selfishness of the individual. For Nakashima, the creative act functioned as one of translation of this divine consciousness into a manifestation of beauty. This act was one free of ego and one where he could develop a reciprocal relationship with material. In this way, the divinity within Nakashima was indistinct from the divinity within each of the trees he crafted into furniture. Nakashima’s mission was to expose this divinity through the preservation and transformation of the tree. He saw the grains of the wood as expressing different moods and emotions, which should not be tamed, but rather worked with. Formally, this ethic can be seen in the unfinished edges of his tables, some of which possess open fissures and knots characteristic of the wood’s natural character.

Nakashima often reserved walnut wood for tables, desks, and cabinets, where the wood’s beauty could be seen and appreciated. But, he would sometimes keep a piece of wood for decades before understanding what its most salient expression would be. Often, Nakashima used the undesirable cuts from mass-market furniture makers who were too daunted by woods with knots or gaping cavities – effects that would “diminish” an even grain or veneer. He called this “ragpicking,” a practice of resourcefulness aligned with his mission to build the Pondicherry ashram using almost no waste whatsoever. And in this way, his furniture possesses the same endurance, as evinced in a quote that explains his “partnership” with the tree: “In order to produce a fine piece of furniture, the spirit of the tree lives on and I can give it a second life.”

Nakashima Campus: New Hope, PA

Just north of Philadelphia along the Delaware River sits a thickly wooded idyll named New Hope, Pennsylvania. An unlikely creative community developed here in the 1940s furthered by architect Antonin Raymond’s settlement. Raymond was George Nakashima’s former boss in Tokyo who sponsored the Nakashima family’s release from a Japanese internment camp and who subsequently hosted the family on his farm and residence, which was modeled on his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen campus of education and production. But unlike the arguably dictatorial structure of Taliesen, Raymond and Nakashima, privileged a collaborative, integrated approach to design and living fueled by the mergence of European Modernism and the design sensibilities they learned from Japan. It was visited by the likes of Eero Saarinen, who designed an un-built house in New Hope in 1941, and Alvar Aalto.

When Nakashima acquired his own land in New Hope, he first built a shop, then patiently over the decades, fifteen more buildings, in effect creating a humbly scaled campus of the likes of pre-war European design workshops. Nakashima stridently advocated for patience in design and craft exemplified in the work process at the Nakashima campus, which employed craftspeople and mentees throughout the decades and still does under the leadership of his daughter Mira Nakashima. For George Nakashima, this method of workshop production contrasted sharply with the conspicuous consumption encouraged by postwar industrialization and, arguably, the loss of craft through factory production of furniture and design. These five buildings, built and designed by Nakashima were important in the creation of his works and also his evolution as a designer and architect. 


Main Shop, George Nakashima, 1946
The Main Shop was the first building on the Nakashima campus, built while the family lived in an old army tent just nearby. George Nakashima said, “Like the farmer who first builds his barn, we built our workshop first.” The Main Shop is a modest concrete block building with its original framing composed primarily of local Oak and Cypress. It was expanded and improved upon over the years. The planing, sanding, gluing, cutting, drilling and joint fitting of the wood still take place here on six workbenches.


Main Shed, 1956
As the original lumber storage building, the Main Shed features an upward curving roof which was his first experiment in designing and engineering hyperbolic shell roof structures. In a book on Nakashima’s work, his daughter Mira likens this roof to Le Corbusier’s roof at Ronchamp. Nakashima admired Le Corbusier’s work, especially his Swiss Pavilion, located outside his residence during his stay in Paris in the 1930s. The lumber for Nakashima’s projects was air-dried and kiln-dried off site, and stored here. Wood needed to thoroughly dry, according to Nakashima, to stabilize its shifting form and color.


Finishing Department, 1955
The purist in Nakashima originally advocated for no hard finish to be applied to his works, but he applied a time-consuming hand-rubbed oil finish to his projects. Ordinary “distressing” of furniture, he recognized, was inevitable and added to its character. The Finishing Department is designed humbly as a concrete block structure with a corrugated transite roof.

The Chair Department, 1957
The Chair Department, built just a year after the Hyperbolic Paraboloid Main Shed, was the prototype plywood shell for the reinforced concrete roof of the Conoid Studio next door. True to its name, Nakashima assembled chairs here, and skilled craftspeople still do to this day. They hand-shave the back spindles for Nakashima’s Conoid chair series, then heat their tips so they shrink and before expanding as they cool in the joints of the chair’s seat and armature so that they naturally, without hardware, join together tightly.


Conoid Studio, 1960
With the help of engineers Paul Wedlinger and Mario Salvadori, Nakashima built his most soaring and successful Conoid roof, a clamshell-inspired roof with sinusoidal curves to cap the titular Conoid Studio, which is used as a design studio, a conference room to meet clients, and a more elegant place to store his prized pieces of wood. 

George Nakashima 1905–1990

George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington in 1905. He attended the University of Washington where he excelled in architecture courses and was awarded a scholarship to study at the Ecole Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Fontainebleau. Nakashima completed his master’s degree from MIT in 1930, and worked for a brief time as a mural painter before losing his job during the depression. Nakashima sold his car, moved to Paris and then to Tokyo in 1934. In Japan, he worked at the architectural firm of Antonin Raymond where he was exposed to the Japanese folk art tradition. In 1937, Nakashima traveled to India to supervise the construction of Golconde, a dormitory for Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Nakashima returned to the United States settling in Seattle, Washington where he worked for an architect and constructed his first furniture designs in the basement of a local Boys Club. During World War II, he and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Idaho. Antonin Raymond petitioned for and attained their release under the condition that Nakashima would work on his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Relocated, Nakashima began making furniture again. He produced a line for Knoll in 1946 and designed the Origins line for Widdicomb in 1957, but it is his studio works and important commissioned forms for which he is most admired.

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