Nakashima: Two new shows celebrate famed modern furniture makers

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As a boy, George Nakashima's reverence for trees grew while he hiked the rain forest of the Ho River Valley in the state of Washington.

A Japanese-American who studied forestry and architecture before becoming a distinguished woodworker, Mr. Nakashima searched the world for wood, even journeying to the banks of London's Thames River to select English walnut.

"George was one of the formative designers of what we now refer to as 20th-century or modern design," said Henry Aibel, owner of Philadelphia's Moderne Gallery, which has sold Nakashima furniture for 22 years.

Since Mr. Nakashima's death in 1990, his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, and a staff of 13 artisans have carried on her father's approach to carefully choosing, cutting, curing and creating with wood. Each year, these designers and woodworkers produce about 500 handmade pieces at the Nakashima family compound in New Hope, Bucks County.

Now two local exhibitions are showcasing the work of Mr. Nakashima and his daughter. "Nakashima Revealed" opens Friday and continues through Oct. 28 at Carnegie Mellon University's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery. "Nature, Form & Spirit" opened Aug. 4 and runs through Nov. 11 at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Ligonier.

The shows coincide with a growing international demand for this singular furniture and a dramatic increase in its value. Last December, a table Mr. Nakashima made for close friends sold for $822,000 at a Sotheby's auction.

"Nakashima Revealed" features the master's sketchy and detailed drawings, his tools and 15 pieces of furniture the university acquired when Warner Hall was built and dedicated in 1966.

"You can see the drawing. You can look across the gallery and see the furniture," said Rachel Delphia, a decorative arts curator at Carnegie Museum of Art who wrote the catalog for the CMU show.

Ms. Delphia loves the contrasts contained in Nakashima furniture.

"It's the unique blend of so many elements -- East and West, traditional old world and modern. You see Japanese joinery and you see traces of Shaker design in the thin spindles and simple rails across the back of a chair," she said.

In the 1930s, Mr. Nakashima spent two weeks as a student at Harvard, where German architect Walter Gropius and his colleague, Marcel Breuer, held sway with their Bauhaus theory of design. Unimpressed, Mr. Nakashima left to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"He didn't think that the Bauhaus really had it together," his daughter said.

"Dad's whole argument against modern design and modern art was that it was based on the cult of the ego. He did not think that was the way you accomplished anything good."

Earlier this month, during remarks at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall said her father decided to become a woodworker because "he could control the process from beginning to end."

Her father, who was of samurai lineage, believed that cutting a tree was like cutting diamonds.

"The tree is given a chance to come forth with its story and, in that dialogue, teaches something to the woodworker," she said.

Eve Novak, one of the sponsors of the Ligonier show, said that she and her husband, Dr. Joseph Novak, began collecting Nakashima furniture in the 1940s.

At the time, some Americans smashed beautiful family china that had been made in Japan to demonstrate their disdain for the Japanese. But the Novaks continued to add to their collection of Nakashima furniture. They now have 49 pieces in their Ligonier home, she said.

In the 1940s, Mr. Nakashima used whatever logs he could find. One of his important early suppliers was Charlie Thompson of Thompson Mahogany Co. in Philadelphia, who often sent logs to a veneer mill in Virginia.

One day, Mr. Thompson told Mr. Nakashima that he had imported logs for veneer that were not of veneer quality.

"He didn't know what to do with them so he gave them to Dad," Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall said.

Mr. Nakashima sent out his first catalog in 1945. As his work became known, he often received calls from people telling him about certain trees that were available for cutting. Today, his daughter receives those calls.

"You have to look at a log. You have to figure out how you can mill it to its best advantage. Dad liked to cut it in eighth-inch increments because there was less waste."

Nakashima woodworkers air-dry the wood for several years, then dry it in a kiln. Clients help choose the wood for their furniture.

Early in life, Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall learned an important lesson from her father about optimism and perseverance. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in detention camps. The Nakashimas were held in a desert barracks in Idaho. In the camp, Mr. Nakashima met Gentaro Hikogawa, who was trained in traditional Japanese carpentry.

"He always seemed to see the bright side of whatever came his way," his daughter said.

His friendship with Mr. Hikogawa gave him access to techniques, skills and tools. Ms Nakashima-Yarnall still has a toy box her father made for her in the camp.

The man who helped free Mr. Nakashima and his family was Antonin Raymond, a Czech architect who trained with Frank Lloyd Wright and had trained Mr. Nakashima in Tokyo from 1934 to 1939. By the 1940s, Mr. Raymond was living in a ramshackle farmhouse in New Hope in eastern Pennsylvania, raising chickens. He invited his former student to work there.

Although Mr. Nakashima left Harvard after two weeks, he sent his daughter there and insisted she study architectural sciences. When she returned to her father's workshop, she had to learn how to assert herself.

"Every time he would get mad at me, he'd say, 'You went to Harvard. That's the trouble with you. You're too much of an independent thinker.'

"I was an independent thinker. I would disagree with what Dad told me to do or why he wanted to do something," Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall recalled.

In 1998, she unveiled a line of furniture called keisho, which means "continuation." Although she hews as closely as possible to her father's approach, choice of materials and techniques, she will branch out on her own when necessary.

Robert Aibel, the Philadelphia gallery dealer, said Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall initially struggled to cut her own artistic path.

"She was the natural extension of his career. She was not only trained by him but she collaborated with him. She was doing the shop drawings. They were discovering and finding new sources of wood that they didn't have in the earlier years," he said.

Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall brought greater precision to the work, Mr. Aibel said. As a result, her own pieces are more geometric, architectural and controlled than those of her father, and some buyers like her solo work better.

Her pieces "articulate a space," Mr. Aibel said. Some buyers who see Mr. Nakashima's style as "too loose and a little too free-form like the control that her work exerts over the pieces."

Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall said that people began to see her father's creations as art after it was exhibited in a 1989 show called Full Circle.

For years, she said she struggled with the question: How do you separate design from craft from art?

"Where do those lines lie? I think craft's primarily the product of the hand, art is a product of the heart and design is a product of the mind. When they all come together, which I think in Dad's work they did, it's something very special."

Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall believes her father's furniture has increased in value because it is made well, with solid wood.

"It's put together with integrity and with strength and with good engineering and good craftsmanship."

When Nakashima furniture is resold, it's often been used for years and bears scratches, dents, stains and marks.

"You sand it down and give it another coat of oil and it's beautiful.

"It holds up," his daughter said.

Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.


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