Nakashima:  Trees As Souls

Nakashima: Trees As Souls by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.

Trees have souls.  That’s what woodworker George Nakashima believed.  Every piece of wood he chose for building a piece of furniture he chose on purpose.  No accidents. 

What he did embodied a message to all modern societies that we must constantly remember the eternal in all that we do.
— Mira Nakashima, Daughter

“Each tree, every part of each tree, has only one perfect use. How to acquire logs and what to do with them calls for creative skill. There is need always to select and to search, even to look underground where the most fantastic grains can often be found,” he said. 

As a hands-on-man Nakashima didn’t trust mass-produced furniture.  He said it took away from the craftsmanship.

“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 loved wood.  He got wood on some primal level the rest of us sometimes miss.  Wood for Nakashima was perfect in and of itself--so there isn’t much added to his furniture.  No bells and whistles.  No frills and decoration.  Burls, knots, and figured grain were embellishments for him.

And it isn’t that Nakashima didn’t use machines in building furniture.  He did.  The machine was his principal tool.  But like Frank Lloyd Wright he used machines combined with handwork.

Nakashima was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1905.  He was the son of a newspaper reporter of samurai lineage.  He graduated from the M.I.T. with a Master's in Architecture in 1930 and worked as a mural painter and architectural designer in New York. 

After the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II he was sent to an American internment camp, Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho.  There Nakashima mastered traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques under the guidance of  Gentaro Hikogawa. 

After the war Nakashima designed and built his workshop and house in New Hope, Pa., which is still making furniture by his same techniques under daughter Mira’s watchful eye. 

Nakashima’s signature pieces are large-scale tables with smooth surfaces, unfinished natural edges and butterfly joints.  His style is a blend of Japanese, American and International Modern.

One of his dreams was to provide "Altars of Peace" for each of the seven continents on earth.  The first “Peace Altar” was built from an amazing pair of matched black walnut wood slabs.  The altar was consecrated and installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1986.

The second altar was built to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations in 1995.  The altar was made from the same huge black walnut tree as the first altar and was blessed at the same church.  It served as a powerful presence at The Hague Appeal for Peace in May of 1999.  Today the altar resides in the Russian Academy of Art in Moscow.

“What he did embodied a message to all modern societies that we must constantly remember the eternal in all that we do,” said daughter Mira.  A theme in Nakashima’s work was bridging separate worlds.  He brought nature to industry.

On Feb. 25-26, Dave Rago offered a selection of Nakashima’s furniture in his 20th/21st Century Design Auction in Lambertville, N.J.  

George Nakashima

Grass-Seated Chairs; 8; Cherry; woven seat cord;  $12,500.

Two-Door Cabinet; walnut, pandanus cloth; signed; 32 inches by 72 inches; 1965;  $15,000

Conoid Bench; walnut, hickory; unsigned; 28 ½ inches by 86 inches;  $36,250.

Minguren II Dining Table; English Oak burl; American white oak; 1989-1991;  30 inches by 68 inches;  $52,500.

Coffee Table with Pyramid base; Claro walnut burl; black walnut; copy of original drawings and invoice; only three tables made from this piece of burled walnut; 1989; 16 inches by 48 inches;  $87,500.


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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