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George Nakashima

New Hope, Pennsylvania, USA
1 of 7Dwell

George Nakashima was a design icon who bridged modern visions from the West with Japanese craftsmanship. While most followers of the arts and crafts movement held socialist or utopian ideals, George Nakashima really walked the walk. The Japanese American furniture maker and architect travelled the world in search of meaning, and his voyage of discovery is revealed in his timeless designs.

He was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, to Japanese émigré parents. Both sides of his family claim Samurai ancestry and migrated from Japan to America and settled in Seattle. 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. In 1929, George graduated from University of Washington with a degree in Architecture. He went on to join the Harvard School of Design for his masters. After discovering Harvard's program is based on theory rather than practice, Nakashima soon changed to MIT for a better grounding of his work in engineering and practice.

Inspirations and Influences

In 1930, Nakshima received a scholarship to do a diploma at École Américaine des Beaux Arts, Fontainbleau. Living in Montparnasse, George saw two pieces of architecture that had a great influence on his life and work, the Cathedral at Chartres and Le Corbusier's Pavillon Suiesse. Nakashima graduated with a masters degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1931. He then sold his car and bought a round-the-world steamship ticket.

Japan Years

He spent a year in France living the life of a bohemian, and then went on to North Africa and eventually to Japan. While in Japan, Nakashima went to work for Antonin Raymond and Noemi Raymond, a Czech-American architect and his French-American wife who had collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel. While working for Raymonds, Nakashima toured Japan extensively, studying the subtleties of Japanese architecture and design. During this period he met Marion Okajima, who would become his wife. While working for Raymonds, Nakashima worked as the project architect for the first reinforced concrete building in India – the Golconde Ashram(Dormitory) in Pondicherry, supervising construction from 1937-39 and immersing himself in the spiritual teachings of the sect.

Golconde and Lessons of Aurobindo

Nakashima moved to Pondicherry in 1937 for two years to oversee the design and construction of architect Antonin Raymond’s initial design for Golconde. It was a major turning point in Nakashima’s spiritual and creative evolution. The architect evolved and altered the original design patiently as he became a disciple of spiritual leader and philosopher Aurobindo and practiced his “Internal Yoga,” which called for the continual recognition, through the psychological discipline of Yoga, of a collective consciousness free from the selfishness of the individual. For Nakashima, the creative act functioned as one of translation of this divine consciousness into a manifestation of beauty. This selflessness carried through the construction program of Golconde where Nakashima’s construction team generated almost no waste whatsoever by creatively recycling packing materials and other industrial and natural materials in the finished dormitory design.

The Swiss Pavillion Paraleles

Raymond’s overall horizontal design for this massive dormitory owes much to Le Corbusier’s 1930 Pavillon Suisse at the Cité Internationale Universitaire in Paris, an homage not at all lost on Nakashima. While studying in Paris, Nakashima would stare at and admire the construction of Pavillon Suisse from his apartment window, according to his daughter Mira. On site in Pondicherry, Nakashima altered Raymond’s design to acclimate to the region’s hot climate. He added barrel-vaulted ceilings that collect the structure’s rising heat, a characteristic that he would eventually evolve into the form of the parabolic conoid roofs of two of his studio buildings in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Despite the brutish nature of concrete material, Nakashima achieves a graceful permeability with Golconde’s outer skin thanks to a system of adjustable louver shutters that allow residents to modulate airflow from the outside in. Interior rooms are delimited by perforated sliding teak doors, which add another layer of ventilation-privileging privacy. And by raising the building on a series of pilotis, Nakashima allowed for a ventilating breezeway while also giving a nod to Pavillion Suisse’s similar characteristic foundation. Today, this area acts as a lively collection point for tea and discussion.

Return to America

In 1941 Nakashima returned to America, and married Marion Okajima, a Seattle native and alumni of UCLA, who he had met in Tokyo. The newly wed moved to Seattle where George decided to leave architecture and began to make furniture and teach woodworking in Seattle. Like others of Japanese ancestry, he was interned during the Second World War and sent to Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho, in March 1942. At the camp he met Gentaro (sometimes spelled Gentauro) Hikogawa, a man trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. Under his tutelage, Nakashima learned to master traditional Japanese hand tools and joinery techniques. Perhaps more significant, he began to approach woodworking with discipline and patience, striving for perfection in every stage of construction. Nakashima's signature woodworking design was his large-scale tables made of large wood slabs with smooth tops but unfinished natural edges, consisting of multiple slabs connected with butterfly joints.

New Hope, Pennsylvania

In 1943, Antonin Raymond successfully sponsored Nakashima’s release from the camp and invited him to his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. In his studio and workshop at New Hope, Nakashima explored the organic expressiveness of wood and choosing boards with knots and burls and figured grain. He designed furniture lines for Knoll, including the Straight Back Chair (which is still in production), and Widdicomb-Mueller as he continued his private commissions. The studio grew incrementally until Nelson Rockefeller commissioned 200 pieces for his house in Pocantico Hills, New York, in 1973. Drawing on Japanese designs and shop practices, as well as on American and International Modern styles, Nakashima created a body of work that would make his name synonymous with the best of 20th century American Art furniture.


Nakashima's home, studio, and workshop near New Hope, Pennsylvania, was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in August 2008; six years later the property was also designated a National Historic Landmark. In June 2015, the site received a "Keeping It Modern" grant from the Getty Foundation to create a solid conservation plan as a model approach for the preservation of historic properties. One of Nakashima's workshops, located in Takamatsu City, Japan, currently houses a museum and gallery of his works. The Nakashima Foundation for Peace, currently housed in the Minguren Museum in New Hope, had its beginnings in 1984.

In 1984, George Nakashima had the opportunity to purchase the largest and finest walnut log he had ever seen and sought to use the immense planks to their fullest potential. He dreamed then that if Altars for Peace were made for each continent of the world, as centers for meditation, prayer, and activities for peace, the world would be a better place. Over the past decade, his furniture has become ultra-collectible and his legacy of what became known as the "free-edge" aesthetic influential. Today the Nakashima business makes standard wooden furniture and continues to create more peace altars, soon to complete Nakashima's legacy. To do so the company has procured yet another extremely valuable walnut log that almost matches the size and magnificence of the original.

Nakashima's daughter, Mira Nakashima, took over the company after the passing of her parents in 1990. Mira, who has worked for the family business since 1970, currently produces his iconic designs as well as her own.


"He knew he couldn’t create until he found a reason to create,” says John Terry Nakashima, TV producer, documentary filmmaker and a nephew to the master who spent years studying the works of his uncle George Nakashima along with Nakashima's daughter Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. The result of Mira and John's curiosity has resulted in a documentary on the life and works of the legendary woodworker. “He somehow knew the path was to immerse himself in the cultures he felt might have answers. I’m still amazed that George set out with the blessing of his parents, in the midst of the Great Depression, to follow his instincts around the world seeking the answers to the most difficult question – and it actually worked.”

In Japan he absorbed the philosophy of Mingei – the idea of design to be inexpensive and for everyday use by ordinary people – and in India he became a follower of the guru Sri Aurobindo. “There must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man,” he explained, rather gnomically, in his 1981 autobiography, The Soul of a Tree. “The object created can live forever. The tree lives on in its new form. The object cannot follow a transitory ‘style’, here for a moment, discarded the next. Its appeal must be universal.”

New Hope, Pennsylvania, USA
Zahara, October 16th, 2020