Review by Thomas A. Denenberg
Nature, Form, and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima

Nature, Form, and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. 275 pp.; numerous color and bw illus., bibliography, index. $75.

George Nakashima (1905–1990) occupies a singular place in the history of American furniture making. A complex intellect by any measure, this MIT-trained architect sought to imbue his designs with an inherent spiritualism and a profound reverence for nature. Espousing an eclectic aesthetic philosophy equally indebted to John Ruskin, William Morris, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, Nakashima was influenced by the Mingei Movement—a Buddhist-inspired revival of traditional Japanese joinery as well as the teachings of the Hindu thinker Sri Aurobindo. Best remembered for his creative use of natural wane and dramatic grain figure, Nakashima sought nothing less than to release the soul of a tree with his furniture. The recent book Nature, Form, and Spirit by Mira Nakashima, the designer’s daughter and colleague, adds much-needed nuance to our understanding of this most thoughtful and influential furniture maker.

George Nakashima was the product of a remarkable upbringing and education. A first-generation American, he was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, to immigrant Japanese parents of impressive ancestry and high status. Disciplined and hardworking, the Nakashima family achieved professional respectability in their new country, owning land and sending their male children to college. Fond of the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, George Nakashima enrolled in the University of Washington’s forestry school. An indifferent student, according to family lore, he found his calling and transferred to the study of architecture two years later. In 1929 he was awarded a fellowship to the Ecole Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Fontainebleau, France, where he won the prestigious Prix Fontainebleau at the end of his year of study. Returning to the United States, Nakashima began graduate work at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The GSD, then under the sway of Walter Gropius and the precepts of the Bauhaus, failed to inspire the young architect. Nakashima transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and found an environment more congruent with his earlier beaux-arts training. Nakashima’s initial discomfort with Harvard is curious, given that much of his later thinking centered on themes dear to proponents of the Bauhaus, principally the reconciliation of art and industry. Mira Nakashima devotes a short essay in Nature, Form, and Spirit to this contradiction before concluding that her father was more process oriented than the theorists of the fabled German school. He was, she felt, more pragmatic—“a man of action” (p. 15).

Returning to Paris, Nakashima was reportedly fascinated by Le Corbusier’s Pavillon Suisse, then under construction in his neighborhood. Mira Nakashima again dedicates considerable effort to draw out the influence of the Franco-Swiss modernist on her father. Le Corbusier, intrigued by human scale, promoted a humane modernism and frequently lectured on the role of buildings in the new urban, industrial landscape. Mira ably sums up the similarities between the two men and notes that for Nakashima—and, by extension, Le Corbusier—“architecture and furniture design were not merely a means for living, but a way to live” (p. 19).

Nakashima’s search for a way to live returned the architect to his ancestral home. From 1934 until 1939 Nakashima worked in Tokyo for the firm of Antonin Raymond, a modernist and disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright. Tellingly, Raymond organized his office after Wright’s Taliesin, an experiment in workplace, home, and educational environment. In Japan, Raymond’s associates lived and worked together, eating as a group in a cafeteria. Nakashima’s earliest professional experiences were therefore framed by a search for alternative models of living and working in the twentieth century. Also in Japan, Nakashima explored the Mingei Movement, a revival of traditional Japanese art and architecture. Later in life, Nakashima was to embrace the Buddhist thinking of Soetsu Yanagi, the chief proponent of the Mingei Movement. Nakashima’s refusal to sign his furniture stems from his interest in Mingei philosophy. Signing a piece, according to this line of thought, is egocentric. Nakashima preferred to let his craftsmanship stand as a signature and only began marking his output quite late in life when pressured to do so by the rise of imitators. 

Nakashima’s search for spiritual growth carried him from Japan to Pondicherry, India, where he supervised the construction of Golconde, the dormitory of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the first reinforced concrete building on the subcontinent. Nakashima’s time at the ashram proved transformative for his thoughts on nature and design. The architect demonstrated his commitment by refusing payment for his time in India. 
The outbreak of World War II compelled Nakashima’s return to the United States. In 1942 this highly trained, worldly, and creative individual stood on the verge of a promising architectural career. Instead, he, along with his entire family, was interned in the relocation camp at Minidoka, Idaho. His release a year later was the result of direct action by professors at MIT and Antonin Raymond, who offered Nakashima a job on his farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Although he taught furniture design briefly in 1941 and constructed furniture while interned, in 1943 in New Hope, Pennsylvania, Nakashima began the career for which he is best known.

Nakashima’s initial designs demonstrate an interest in materials and a debt to Shaker furniture. His Straight Chair of 1944, for example, strongly resembles a Shaker revolving stool and foreshadows a similar seating form by Paul McCobb. His trestle tables of the same period are simple versions of this ancient design, with the introduction of a detail that would become a Nakashima icon, the inlaid butterfly. Employed to join planks or to stabilize uneven grain such as that formed in a tree crotch, this dovetail-like device was well known to Shaker, Japanese, and European woodworkers. Nakashima celebrated this functional method of joinery by proudly displaying oversized butterflies in the tops of tables, desks, and stands.

Nakashima received substantial encouragement for his early furniture designs from established figures such as René d’Harnoncourt, later director of the Museum of Modern Art. In 1946 Nakashima reached an agreement with Knoll International, the premier purveyor of modern furniture for corporate America, to manufacture and distribute select designs. Although Nakashima is often characterized as a “studio” furniture maker—with the implication that every piece to leave the shop was the product of the master’s hand—he was quite comfortable with the notion of mass production in his early years and soon forged relationships with other manufacturers as well. His Origins chair of 1958–1961 for the Grand Rapids manufacturer Widdicomb-Mueller was described in the New York Times as the “New American Look, a giant step in contemporary design . . . despite its traditional inspiration, the result is a boldly modern approach.”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Nakashima expanded his living and working environment in New Hope and evolved into a seminal figure in the studio furniture movement in the United States. His ability to articulate a sophisticated, environmentally sensitive philosophy of design based on Eastern influences struck a resonant chord in this era of left-leaning, back-to-the-land rhetoric and practice. It is this period, when Nakashima became something of a darling of New York intellectuals and artists, that seems hastily treated in Nature, Form, and Spirit. There is discussion of Nakashima’s friendship with the painter Ben Shahn and a major commission from Nelson Rockefeller, but little sense of who beyond major patrons was buying his furniture. A bit more text devoted to Nakashima’s (presumably) upper-middle-class consumers might have filled this lacuna and provided greater understanding of his popularity. 

Nature, Form, and Spirit raises compelling questions about the nature of biography. At first blush, objectivity is a major question. Mira Nakashima, the designer’s daughter and colleague, is the current creative director of the Nakashima studio. Despite this personal connection, the book is graceful, articulate, and meticulous. It is something of a hybrid, as Mira Nakashima herself appears throughout the book in both the narrative and illustrative program, making the work an autobiographical biography. The book holds insights and interpretations that only a family member could bring to the subject as well as interpretations that only an architect of Mira Nakashima’s training would know to push. If on occasion the author follows received wisdom on, for example, the canonical works of modern design or the genius of such heroic figures as Le Corbusier, this detracts little from the book as the narrative is so personal and Mira Nakashima has allowed the reader to clearly understand her role in the construction of the story. As an object itself, the large-format book is a beautiful work, graced with numerous period photographs by Ezra Stoller that make it attractive for the general reader while invaluable to those interested in the history of modern furniture.

Thomas A. Denenberg
Reynolda House Museum of American Art

American Furniture 2004