George Nakashima (1905–1990), an influential Japanese American woodworker is considered the father of the American Craft movement. Nakashima’s contribution to woodworking design came not only from his work at his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. George was a leading innovator in twentieth century furniture design through his early life and woodworking experiences. His quote “A tree is our most intimate contact with nature” embodies his passion for wood and woodworking.
George Nakashima was born to Japanese American parents in 1905 in Spokane, Washington. Interestingly, after having been trained as an architect at the University of Washington and M.I.T., he opted to travel around the world living in France and North Africa as a bohemian, rather than practicing his chosen profession. Eventually, his travels led him to Japan, where he met American architect Antonin Raymond. Raymond’s claim to fame at that stage was that he had collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel. Nakashima then entered into a period traveling around Japan and studying Japanese architecture and design, whilst at the same time working for Raymond. The foundation for George’s woodworking experienced was laid during this time in Asia.
Nakashima returned to the United States in 1940. He taught woodworking in Seattle whilst at the same time building wooden furniture. Life took a dramatic turn for Gearge during World War II when he met a traditional Japanese carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa in a Japanese internment camp in Idaho. Hikogawa was well versed in joinery techniques and the use of traditional Japanese hand tools, and transferred this knowledge to Nakashima. Having time available in the internment camp, Nakashima used the opportunity to become a perfectionist in his craft. The beginnings of Nakashima’s signature piece can also be traced back to this period. This large table is composed of multiple slabs connected with butterfly joints, resulting in a smooth slab top with unfinished edges.
Antonin Raymond sponsored the release of Nakashima from the internment camp in 1943. Nakashima then joined Raymond on the latter’s farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was there that Nakashima started doing private commissions. This in turn led to the design of furniture lines for Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller and eventually culminated in the founding of his own studio. Being able to draw from both American and Japanese cultures as well as looking at International Modern styles, Nakashima’s work flourished and is regarded as being at the forefront of American Art furniture in the twentieth century.
George Nakashima’s training as an architect combined with his early travels and studying of Japanese carpentry, all contributed toward shaping him as a formidable woodworker. His contribution to woodworking design is founded on a true passion for wood.