Furniture & Decorative Arts

George Nakashima: Soul of a Tree

Born in Spokane, Washington to immigrant parents, George Nakashima (American, 1905-1990)  attended the University of Washington, earning a degree in architecture, and MIT, where he received his master's degree. After school he traveled to Paris, North Africa and Japan before being sent to India to supervise a construction project. It was in India where he first began making furniture. When he returned to the United States in 1940, he settled in Seattle and began practicing woodworking and making furniture full time. During World War II, he was interned, as were many other Japanese-Americans, at Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho, where he met Gentaro Hikogawa, who was trained in traditional Japanese carpentry. It was under his teaching that Nakashima developed his own appreciation for woodworking.  Nakashima held the idea that one had to respect the craftsmanship as much as the materials.

“The tree’s fate rests with the woodworker. In hundreds of years its lively juices have nurtured its unique substance. A graining, a subtle coloring, an aura, a presence will exist this once, never to reappear. It is to catch this moment, to identify with this presence, to find this fleeting relationship, to capture its spirit, which challenges the woodworker.”

George Nakashima, from Soul of a Tree 

Nakashima believed the best way to respect the tree was to cut the wood in a manner to display all the characteristics that make each tree unique. He rarely cut uniform panels, instead he worked with the shape of the tree and allowed the furniture to form around the nature of the wood. He found a way to make furniture utilitarian and functional while also revealing the natural elements the wood possesses. Today, George Nakashima's most recognizable pieces are the ones that show the true elements of the wood-knots, burls and rough edges.

Nakashima created and designed in the post-War era when new materials and construction were celebrated, but his approach to craftsmanship was truly old fashioned. He used hand-held tools, because he felt creating a piece of furniture should bring joy to the maker. He believed the craftsman should work from the inside out, just as a tree grows, to discover the real beauty and spirituality of what he is creating. He felt one had to abandon the ideas of 'style' and 'less is more' -- both popular ideals in post-War America – so as to allow the wood and the worker to be spontaneous. 

Doyle+Design / Auction Nov 9

The Doyle+Design auction on November 9, 2016 offers a number of pieces by George Nakashima from two private collections. The St. Cyr family began collecting furniture in 1959 and continued for the next ten years, acquiring a range of objects, from a useful dining table and chairs to a slab coffee table represents the artist's true love for his materials. The second collection was assembled in 1987, only a few years before George Nakashima’s death. A highlight is the Sanso dining table, reflective of Nakashima’s large Altars for Peace project. It demonstrates the beauty and symmetry that can be created from two 'book-matched' planks. Both collections exhibit Nakashima's commitment to nature and craftsmanship.  View the lots.


Portrait of specialist Todd Sell
Senior Vice President / Appraiser, Silver, Furniture & Decorations
Furniture & Decorative Arts
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