Friday, June 25, 2010

Designer of the Month: George Nakashima

Week 4

Last week I discussed George Nakashima's architectural work on his New Hope, PA property. This week, I'm going to finish up my discussion of Nakashima by focusing on his woodworking career.

"Lectern combines practicality with raw beauty." Courtesy of The Woodworkers Institute.

In 1952, Nakashima was awarded the Gold Craftsmanship Medal from the American Institute of Architects, not for his architecture, but for his designs for furniture:
You have perpetuated in your work in the design and making of furniture the highest standards of past ages of handicrafts, and that respect for good materials and honest labor, that recognition of human use by rich or poor, that will in any age distinguish great craftsmanship; we salute your original and distinguished effort to employ the machine and its resources sincerely, to give our own day beautiful furniture and other objects, by whose standard we will not be ashamed to measure architecture.[1]

Just one of his many achievements, this award is notable for its recognition of a designer and for the fact that, while Nakashima was still in the beginning stages of his career as a woodworker, it is clear that his work had its admirers, even from the start.

"Butterfly joints are in delicate contrast to the highly figured and natural wood." Courtesy of The Woodworkers Institute.

As I discussed in week 2, one of Nakashima's great concerns in creating an object was in matching each piece of wood with its ultimate use, one of the many skills he deemed necessary to become a woodworker. He explains that:
The selection of furniture parts is always most important. Of the roughly ten thousand boards available in my warehouse, the perfect choice must be made for each part of each board. Sometimes five or ten years pass before a board is selected for use. There must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man. The grain of the wood must relate closely to its function. The abutment of the edge of one board to an adjoining board can mean the success or failure of a piece.[2]

It's quite a lot to think about, but Nakashima discusses the process of his work as a sort of meditation, with harmony necessary to achieve balance, especially considering that Nakashima did almost all of the actual construction of the furniture using traditional Japanese hand tools. Not that he was against machinery at all, however. The cutting of the boards was, and still is, done with machines, and Nakashima always insisted that where a machine could do the work more efficiently, he wouldn't hesitate to use them, but that there were many areas where only hand tools could be used.[3]

Furniture installed in the Reception House. "Built in 1975, the left image displays the Sanso table and Conoid chairs in the dining area. On the right, the Greenrock Ottoman and Mira Chair in the study area." Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.
The key to fine workmanship lies in the drive for perfection and the development of skills to achieve it. Perhaps as a backlash to industrialism and commercialism, a new concept seems to be taking hold. The large number of young people, many of them college graduates, who want to do truly fine work is astonishing. Even in my shop, where many questioned at first whether our work made sense, the reactions are now enthusiastic. There is a pride evident today in work well done. Many strive to create and to create well.[4]

And with that, I'm going to end our Designer of the Month discussion for June, leaving you with a few images of some of my personal favorite of Nakashima's many designs for furniture, all of which you can view on his website, here.

Conoid Coffee Table, 1960. Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Mira Chair, ca. 1950. Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Asa-No-Ha Lamp. Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Patterson Desk. Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Conoid End Table. Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

[1] George Nakashima, "Accomplishments," The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections (New York: Kodansha International, 1981), 199.

[2] George Nakashima, "The Making of An Object: A Thousand Skills, A Thousand Voices," The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections (New York: Kodansha International, 1981), 128.

[3] Ibid., 132.

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