George Nakashima was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, to Japanese émigré parents. As a child he was a member of the Boy Scouts, and the group’s hikes and camping trips instilled in him a love of trees and nature, which continued throughout his life.
Nakashima first studied forestry at the University of Washington, but quickly switched to architecture. He later completed a Master’s degree in architecture from MIT.
After his studies, Nakashima sold his car and purchased an around-the-world steamship ticket, spending time in France, North Africa, America and eventually Japan. The trip contributed to his vast knowledge of design, materials and techniques.
In 1934, Nakashima joined the architecture firm of Antonin Raymond, a protégé of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Raymond later sent Nakashima to Pondicherry, India, to supervise the construction of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
During his stay, Nakashima became a disciple of the guru Sri Aurobindo and learnt Integral Yoga. The practice had a lasting impact on his later designs.
After moving back to America in 1941, Nakashima became increasingly disillusioned with architecture. He wanted to champion traditional philosophies and craftsmanship, not industrialisation and modernity. That year, Nakashima decided to pursue a new career as a furniture designer.
‘Instead of a long-running and bloody battle with Nature to dominate her,’ he wrote, ‘we can walk in step with a tree to release the joy in her grains, to join with her to realise her potentials, to enhance the environments of man.’
In 1942 Nakashima and his young family were relocated to an internment camp in Idaho, alongside 120,000 other Japanese-Americans. There, he met the master Issei carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa, from whom he learnt many woodworking techniques.
A year later, Antonin Raymond managed to secure a release for the family, by employing Nakashima on his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Nakashima opened his first workshop in New Hope in 1943. Within two years he was designing for the manufacturer Knoll, which brought his creations to a wider audience. The two chairs shown above were produced by Nakashima Studios, and served as early examples for Knoll’s N19 Chair, which began production in 1949.
Almost every work that Nakashima made was unique, hand-crafted and accompanied by a dated order card, which now provides important documentation for owners and collectors. As time went on, the quality of Nakashima’s furniture improved as he gained greater access to rare woods from around the globe.
Nakashima embraced the unique qualities of wood — cracks, holes and the like. For him, they revealed the ‘soul of the tree’. He believed that the individuality of the wood should be celebrated, and it was the role of the craftsman to bring it out.
‘Each flitch, each board, each plank can have only one ideal use,’ he opined. ‘The woodworker, applying a thousands skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realise its true potential.’
His integration of butterfly key joints became a prominent feature in his later work, further emphasising the natural beauty of the wood grain and burl. This simple joinery technique has come to be recognised as a trademark of Nakashima’s philosophy — a minimal intervention in the original forms of the wood.
Nakashima formed a close working relationship with all his clients. The wooden boards he used were often handpicked for the individual and signed with their name in ink underneath, connecting each work to a specific time and place.
Among Nakashima’s most significant clients were Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, for whom he designed more than 200 pieces for their home in Pocantico Hills, New York. The works were, at the time, the largest collection of Nakashima’s work in private hands.
Nakashima created unique works within a unified system of design, with lables such as ‘Conoid’, ‘Minguren’, ‘Frenchman’s Cove’ and ‘Cross-Legged’. This system made for a cohesive body of work, while allowing for endless variations through the use of different woods. Nakashima’s production system is unique in the history of design.
In 2014, Nakashima’s home, studio and workshop was designated a United States National Historic Landmark and a World Monument. The studio is still creating bespoke, handcrafted furniture today under the leadership of Nakashima’s daughter Mira, a designer in her own right.