George Nakashima’s wood designs still stunningly modern decades after his death

Posted by Rumin Mann
August 6th, 2013

Globe and Mail – July 20, 2013

In the design world, nature and artifice are often locked in a complex dance, designers and architects frequently struggling to reconcile the demands of contemporary life with the timeless beauty of natural materials. George Nakashima, the Japanese-American “woodworker” with a globe-spanning career, was among the first modern craftsmen to address this challenge head-on. Beginning in the 1940s, he sought to make furniture that combined contemporary attitudes, traditional craft and ancient timber. And by any standards he succeeded.

Over the next month or so, the Toronto boutique Mjolk is hosting the first-ever exhibition in Canada from the Nakashima Studio. The show pairs Nakashima designs with work in ceramic, wood and metal by five contemporary Japanese artisans. It is a useful juxtaposition, as Nakashima works – still produced today under the direction of his daughter, Mira – draws on a Japanese reverence for nature and that culture’s traditional respect for craftsmanship.

“The respect for the natural form of wood is very Japanese,” Mira Nakashima says from her family’s home and workshop outside of Philadelphia. “Dad said that he thought he was a Japanese Druid. Druids worshipped the trees. But the Japanese Shinto tradition is very similar – that very deep respect for the things of nature and the forms of nature. Dad thought it was in his blood.”

George Nakashima was born an American, in Washington State in 1905, but he set out on a path that gave him a rare opportunity to learn about his ancestral homeland. After studying architecture at the University of Washington, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he moved to Tokyo to work for Antonin Raymond, a Czech-American architect who became a force for modernism in Japan. “While in the Raymond office, he studied Japanese building,” Nakashima’s daughter says. “They didn’t really have architecture as a profession at that time; the building was mostly wood construction and the master carpenters were the ones who really knew everything.

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