Follow the Stories | San Francisco, California (2004)
George Nakashima: Spiritual Woodworker
At the San Francisco ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, a woman brought in a strikingly elegant dining table made in the early 1950s. But despite the table's beauty, it wasn't easy to define where it belonged stylistically. The table had something of a Modernist feel, but its emphasis on the beauty of wood seemed to place it in this country's Arts and Crafts tradition. It was made by an American, but the table also felt as if it had roots in Asian design.
At the ashram, the architect was given the name "Sundarananda," which means "one who delights in beauty."
These seeming contradictions only make sense when you delve into the life of the table's maker: George Nakashima. Born of Japanese parents in Spokane, Washington, he began his professional life not as a woodworker, but as an architect. In 1933, he moved to Paris and joined the firm of Antonin Raymond, a Modernist architect.
In 1937, Nakashima volunteered to oversee the construction of a dormitory for an ashram run by Sri Aurobindo, an Indian activist turned spiritual leader. The assignment turned out to be more than a job for Nakashima; he declined a salary and joined the community, which included about 200 men and women from all over the world. It was at this ashram in the years prior to World War II that Nakashima, the spiritual woodworker, was born.
One Who Delights in Beauty
At the ashram, the architect was given the name "Sundarananda," which means "one who delights in beauty." Upon leaving, Nakashima chose to pursue a life as a woodworker and set up shop in Seattle. It was not to bolster his own ego that he decided to create — in contrast to many artists in the Western tradition — but rather to pursue the divine in his work. His new career was interrupted in 1940 when he and his wife Marion and their daughter Mira, a newborn at the time, were interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans in the Idaho desert. There, the young woodworker apprenticed himself to an elderly Japanese carpenter and learned the woodworking craft through his mentor's "hundreds of small acts of perfection."
After he and his family were released from the camp, they settled in the artist's community of New Hope, Pennsylvania, and gradually built a home. There, Nakashima developed his woodworking designs. The table that came into San Francisco was an early example of a Nakashima design. The woodworker had given the table to a man, the current owner's father, in exchange for the design he drew for Nakashima's studio. Such exchanges were common in New Hope, a diverse artists' community for almost two centuries.
A Kinship with Trees
While Nakashima's creations were influenced by Japanese, Modernist, and even Shaker styles, his greatest inspiration probably came from trees themselves. "My kinship with the tree dates from the day I first stood among the great forest giants in the rain forest of Washington's Ho River valley ... ," Nakashima writes in his book The Soul of a Tree. "It is an art- and soul-satisfying adventure to walk the forests of the world, to commune with trees ... to bring this living material to the work bench, ultimately to give it a second life."
Nakashima's love and respect for trees is apparent in nearly all the chairs, tables, desks, and cabinets that he built. One of his trademarks was to leave a board's rough outside edge, known as its "free edge," and use it in his furniture — rather than to trim it off and discard it, as most woodworkers do. And this technique has translated into value. The more "free edges" a Nakashima piece has, the more it tends to sell for, says David Rago, an independent appraiser based in Lambertville, New Jersey. Nakashima furniture can sell for a few thousand dollars, or for up to tens of thousands. Rago appraised the San Francisco table for between $9,000 and $12,000.
Nakashima always had an eye out for interesting patterns in the grain of wood. Indeed, another striking feature of the table brought in in San Francisco is its unadorned "bookmatch" top — made from two pieces of wood that are mirror images of each other.
"In his best pieces," Rago says, aptly summing up the artist's style, "by doing nothing more than polishing it, Nakashima lets the wood become the decoration."
See the San Francisco, California (2004) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
For Further Reading:
The Soul of a Tree, by George Nakashima. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1988.
Nature, Form, and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima, by Mira Nakashima. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
Tours of the Nakashima compound in New Hope, Pennsylvania, are given by appointment.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.