Design & Architecture | George Nakashima

Important 20th Century Design
Sotheby’s, New York, USA. 13th June, 2012
Important 20th Century Decorative Art & Design
Christie’s, New York, USA. 14th June, 2012
20th/21st Century Design Auction
Rago, New Jersey, USA. June 16th & 17th, 2012

Previews for all the above start 9th June

Rather oddly, because designers and architects in the UK are pretty well-informed about modernism and modernists in general, the name George Nakashima, rarely comes up. Indeed, London’s Design Museum design library has no listing for him. A search on the website of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is far from the parochial organisation its name might suggest, bore no fruit, however, the Victoria & Albert Museum has a single, fine, though rather modest, 1956 Nakashima chair in its collection.

A rare aluminium chair – one of only four ever produced – is the centre-piece of an historic collection of seven items of furniture designed by Gerrit Rietveld, going under the hammer at Sotheby’s, New York. Also in this relatively small sale, comprising just 68 lots, is an equally rare Tiffany Studios Dragonfly table lamp, along with interior stained glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, a Josef Hoffman bentwood Sitzmaschine, an Archibald Knox ‘Tudric’ pewter champagne bucket, a Fish lamp designed by Frank Gehry in 1983, and 13 separate lots – some comprising single pieces – all by George Nakashima.

Four Nakashima items appear amongst a total of 134 lots on the listing for Christie’s Important 20th Century Decorative Art & Design sale, the next day.

Just a few days later, across the Hudson River and dwarfing the Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales, New Jersey auction house Rago, in a 2 -day, weekend sale, is offering a total of 1,100 lots. Sunday, the second day is all about modern furniture and lighting with items from a long list of iconic names, among many others: Arne Jacobsen, Charles & Ray Eames, Florence Knoll, Frank Gehry, George Nelson, Gio Ponti, Hans Wegner, Isamu Noguchi, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, Poul Kjaerholm, Shiro Kuramata, Wendell Castle and once again, George Nakashima, who is represented by 31 separate lots.

Assuming you are in funds – these would have to be plentiful, average lot prices range from around $6,000 to around $200,000 – with the possibility of acquiring a total of 48 lots of Nakashima items, should you be thinking about starting your own collection of his furniture, now’s your chance!

On the other hand you might ask: who is George Nakashima (1905-1990)? He is simply a very interesting and important figure in 20th design. On a farmlike compound near New Hope, Pennsylvania, Nakashima, his family, and fellow wood-workers created exquisite furniture from richly grained, rare timber: tables, desks, chairs, and cabinets to grace the homes and executive boardrooms of the likes of the late Nelson Rockefeller, Columbia University and the International Paper Corporation.

Born in the shadow of the USA’s Mount Olympus, in Spokane, Washington State, across the Puget Sound from Seattle, Japanese-American Nakashima grew up in the forests of the remote Olympic Peninsula – largely unmapped until 1900. After studying first forestry then architecture in Washington, in 1930 he received a Master’s from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, in 1928, he had won the Prix Fontainebleau from L’Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts in France and, after a brief time working as a mural painter on Long Island, decided to spend time in Paris before launching himself on a journey that took him to Japan. In Tokyo he found work with Czech-born Antonin Raymond, who had set up an office there. Raymond had emigrated to the United States in 1916, where he had assisted Frank Lloyd-Wright. His buildings in Japan reveal that his understanding of and respect for Japanese tradition informed his modernist sensibility. Raymond, was to prove a strong influence on his young assistant, Nakashima, as was Sri Aurobindo, the philosopher, yogi, guru, and poet, who he would encounter in Pondicherry, India, where George was the onsite architect for the first reinforced concrete building in the country. When war broke out Nakashima returned to the States, where he and his family were incarcerated at Minidoka, Idaho. He was released in 1943 with the help of his former employer Raymond and for a period worked on his ranch.

In India Nakashima had begun to find ways of working with wood and with his new-found philosophy developed ‘…a devotion to discovering the inherent beauty of wood so that noble trees might have a second life as furniture’. While in the internment camp he learned woodworking from a Japanese carpenter and left with the firm intention of establishing a woodworking studio, which he soon after accomplished at New Hope, Pennsylvania. The studio went on to become a huge success, employing some of the world’s finest craftsmen and producing unique and outstanding, highly-collectable, modern furniture. Among many awards from prestigious institutions, Nakashima received the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor and Government of Japan in 1983 in recognition of the cultural exchange generated by the shows he produced in Japan from 1968-1988. His work was widely exhibited, however, the late 1980s retrospective Full Circle, which opened at the American Craft Museum in New York, was to be his last.

Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, George’s daughter, has been creative director of the Nakashima studio since 1990, which continues to produce her father’s classic furniture designs and to produce her own work as well. She lives with her family at the studio compound in New Hope.

I wonder what’s going on though, because even more oddly, George Nakashima, who designed furniture for Knoll, isn’t listed on the MoMA on-line index, either.

Images from top
George Nakashima bending wood, 1940s

Conoid Bench, circa 1974
From the Japanese House, The Mr. and Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller Residence, Pocantico Hills, New York, circa 1974. American black walnut and hickory with one East Indian rosewood key
Sotheby’s estimate $150/200,000

Interior of the Conoid Studio at New Hope, circa 1960

Fine turned-leg dining table, 1958
English walnut, black walnut, rosewood, brass label
From a private collection
Rago estimate $35,000 – $45,000

The Minguren Museum
(Arts Building) from the Cloister at New Hope, which
was originally dedicated to showing artist, Ben Shahn’s work. Unfortunately he died in 1969, shortly after his inaugural exhibition here. Cloister guest rooms were a manifestation of Nakashima’s devotion to the monastic tradition, however, they also house the heating unit, bathroom, kitchen, and storage space, which were not included in the larger building. A large rock at the far edge of the pond is said to have inspired Nakashima to erect this building here.

Long chair, circa 1974
Executed specifically for the Japanese House of Governor and Mrs. Nelson A. Rockefeller, designed by Junzo Yoshimura. Walnut with cotton webbing.
Christie’s estimate 30,000 – 50,000 U.S. dollars

Walnut dresser, 1962
From a private collection
Rago estimate $6,000 – $9,000

All furniture images, courtesy of the respective auction houses. All other images, courtesy of George Nakashima, SA, or George Nakashima Archive. Special thanks to Soomi Hahn Amagasu for her help with this blog post

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One Response to “Design & Architecture | George Nakashima”

  1. Bill says:

    I’d not heard of George Nakashima but enjoyed this vey much. Nice to see his work in its intended environment but also to see the bench against a white background, where I found it easier to see him and his work from a modernist point of view.

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