George Nakashima

A Rockefeller Commission

When Nelson Rockefeller commissioned a new structure for his Japanese Gardens in Pocantico Hills, he told famed architect Junzo Yoshimura to build him a “beautiful garden pavilion in a classical style.” Recently lauded for his Tea House built for gardens at the MoMA, Yoshimura was the perfect choice to design a traditional yet innovative pavilion. For the Rockefellers, Yoshimura chose to create a Sukiya-zukuri pavilion, which is a Japanese style of structure used for refined pursuits. To outfit this extraordinary pavilion, Yoshimura asked his close friend George Nakashima to design the furnishings. Constructing over 150 pieces for this commission, Nakashima invented entirely new forms for the interior space and executed them in rare and exotic woods. In creating his furniture, Nakashima espoused that “ultimately, the woodworker’s responsibility is to the tree itself, which has been sacrificed to live again in the woodworker’s hands.”

Nakashima chose his wood with care, often taking years to contemplate a slab before creating a piece that would honor the spirit of the tree. This is visible in the present lot, as Nakashima chose to highlight a gorgeous sculpture fissure that occurred naturally in the American walnut heart-slab of wood. The use of fine joining methods, free edges, and a cantilevered form are all hallmarks of Nakashima’s ingenuity and skill. The naming of this lot refers to Nakashima’s time as a member of the Minguren, or “People’s Tool Guild,” which was a group of Japanese artisans that strove to revive classical Japanese craft. Additionally, Nakashima’s belief that good joinery possessed an “unseen morality” points to the influence of the American Shakers, who believed in the spirituality of both material and craft. This exceptional table from one of the most important commissions of Nakashima’s career blends his innate sense of the organic and spiritual nature of wood with his precise method of craftsmanship. Though initially made for the Rockefeller Japanese House, in the end, this unique table did not fit in the interior.

Each flitch, each board, each plant can have only one ideal use. The woodworker, applying a thousand skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realize its true potential.

—George Nakashima

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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Auction Results George Nakashima

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