George Nakashima The Soul of Trees

George Nakashima The Soul of Trees  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Rago Auctions.

George Nakashima was an artist in wood.  He said his furniture making gave trees a second life. He loved the natural shapes of trees and the natural grains in the wood and he combined both elements with his own spiritual take on life. 

Trees and their natural shape became an integral part of his design work.  That’s what makes his work unique.  He was a designer, craftsman and architect in wood.

Cutting logs entails a great responsibility, for we are dealing with a fallen majesty. There are no formulas, no guidelines, but only experience, instinct, and a contact with the divine.
— George Nakashima

George called himself the world’s first hippie and believed trees were our most intimate contact with nature. He hoped people would learn to live in harmony with nature.  Not destroy it for their own uses. 

“When trees mature, it is fair and moral that they are cut for man's use, as they would soon decay and return to the earth. Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth,” he said.

He did this by producing one-of-a-kind pieces. 

“Cutting logs entails a great responsibility, for we are dealing with a fallen majesty. There are no formulas, no guidelines, but only experience, instinct, and a contact with the divine,” he said.

In his youth George roamed the mountains of the Pacific Northwest alone searching for a sense of inner peace which he wondered was even possible. 

He went on to study forestry at the University of Washington and switched to architecture after two years. He earned a second degree in architecture from MIT in 1930 and worked as a mural painter and designer for the Long Island State Park Commission. When that job ended he sold his car and headed by steamship for a trip around the world.

In Paris two pieces of architecture moved him: the cathedral of Chartres and Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse.   

He believed it took extraordinary faith and extraordinary hands to build what he called one of the most remarkable cathedrals on earth. From the carved sculpture to the beautiful stained-glass windows everything about the building spoke of a testament to faith. 

The Pavillon Suisse was a dormitory for students at the Univ. of Paris. George watched Le Corbusier’s 1933 building go up.  The master liked simple, clean lines and lots of light. What George witnessed helped shape his own later building and design work.      

From there George traveled to Japan where he worked and immersed himself in Japanese culture.  His takeaway was the importance of craftsmanship.   

He returned to Seattle in 1941 and a year later as a result of the war ended up in a Japanese internment camp along with his family in Idaho. In the camp he met Gentaro Hikogawa, a skilled craftsman who taught George how to use traditional Japanese tools and joinery techniques.  

From the Idaho camp he settled in New Hope, PA.  The area was ideal surrounded by colossal trees and nearby woods. 

Best known for his furniture, logs from all over the world found their way to his storehouse.   

“There is drama in the opening of a log-to uncover for the first time the beauty in the bole, or trunk, of a tree hidden for centuries, waiting to be given this second life,” he said.

On May 20, a selection of Nakashima’s furniture went on the block at Rago Auctions.

Nakashima Studio

Sliding Door Cabinet; walnut; New Hope, Pa; 1957; 32 inches by 60 inches;  $15,000.

Double Pedestal Desk; walnut; New Hope, Pa; 1964; 29 ½ inches by 54 ½ inches;  $23,750.     

Turned Leg Desk with Pedestal; walnut; New Hope, Pa; 1984; unmarked; 29 ½ inches by 54 ½ inches;   $23,750. 

Coffee Table; rare Minguren; New Hope, Pa; 1973; 29 ½ inches by 60 inches;  $56,250.

Bench with Back; figured walnut and hickory; New Hope, Pa; 1957; 31 inches by 132 inches;  $62,500. 

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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