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 received a Bachelor of Architecture at the University of Washington in 1929 and a Master of Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1931, as well as the Prix Fontainebleau from L’Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts in France in 1928. He moved back to Paris briefly in 1934, after which he moved to Tokyo to work for architect Antonin Raymond, where he was exposed to the Japanese folk art tradition. His work for Raymond sent him to Pondicherry, India, where he discovered his second career as a furniture maker. While there, he designed and supervised the construction of Golconde, a dormitory for Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

In 1940, Nakashima returned to the United States to start a family with his new wife, Marion Okajima, and the couple soon had their first child, Mira. They had settled in Seattle, Washington, and like many of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast, the Nakashimas were sent to an internment camp in Idaho during WWII. While Nakashima was there he made furniture from whatever pieces of wood he could find and learned techniques of Japanese woodworking from others stationed at the camp, including a skilled woodworker named Gentaro Hikogawa. After nearly a year at the camp, in 1943, Antonin Raymond successfully petitioned for the family’s release, which prompted their relocation to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Living on the Raymond farm, it wasn’t before long until Nakashima began making furniture once again and, in 1945, opened his furniture and woodworking studio.

On Nakashima’s property, he designed the family’s quarters, the woodshop, and many out buildings, including an arboretum. There he created a body of work that incorporated Japanese design and shop practices, as well as Modernism—work that made his name synonymous with the best of 20th century Studio Craftsman furniture.

Nakashima believed that the tree and its wood dictated the piece it was to become. He elevated what others would see as imperfections: choosing boards with knots and burls and cracks, which he would enhance and stabilize with butterfly joints. He designed furnishings for sitting, dining, sleeping, and working. While all his work is prized, his Frenchman’s Cove and Conoid tables are most so, particularly when executed in exotic woods and with free edges. Many of his designs are known by their distinctive bases: Conoid, Miguren, Trestle, and Pyramid among them. He is also known for his Mira chairs and stools, named for his daughter, who now leads his shop and continues his design legacy.

While Nakashima’s philosophy did not embrace mass production, he did collaborate with Knoll from 1945-1954 and on the Origins line with Widdicomb-Mueller between 1957 and 1961. Major commissions included furnishings for Nelson Rockefeller and Columbia University. His works are represented in the most important institutions in the world. Among many awards from the AIA and other prestigious institutions, Nakashima received the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor and Government of Japan. He received the designation "Living Treasure" in the United States, and he worked and exhibited until shortly before his death in June 1990, one week after receiving his final award, Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, from the University of Washington.

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