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 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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