Inhabiting the Spirit

A one-of-a-kind, handcrafted walnut plank stool, donated by Nakashima Studios of New Hope, Pa., will be auctioned by The Peace Cent Oct. 11, 5 p.m., at Middletown Country Club in Langhorne, Pa., 420 N. Bellevue Ave.

George Nakashima, the legendary woodworker, founded the studio in New Hope in 1942.  His daughter and son, Mira and Kevin, continue the legend today with the same mindfulness of their father, combining form and nature.

Last spring, I had a chance to visit Mira at the studio. Here’s what I wrote:

IF the pot cracks… double the price.

So goes the Zen saying, or at least a popular phrase attributed to Zen philosophy. In fact, George Nakashima (1905-1990) was well aware of the beauty of imperfection in nature. Using butterfly joints, his repairs accentuated the splits and cracks, calling attention to the naturally formed fissures through which the wood speaks.

Considered one of America’s foremost furniture designers, Nakashima was known for his respect for the relationship between man and tree. He published his ideas in The Soul of a Tree in 1981, a woodworker’s reflections on listening to the wood.

“The love for the nature of teak and walnut can best be obtained by working with the material; by cutting, planing, scraping and sanding the wood,” wrote Nakashima, whose love for the forms and spirit of the natural world evolved in the Pacific Northwest of his childhood. “The hours spent by the true craftsman in bringing out the grain, which has long been imprisoned in the trunk of the tree, are themselves an act of creation. He passes his hand over the satiny texture and finds God within.”

Surrounded by the sweet smell of locust trees in bloom and the bass baritone of the bull frogs, Nakashima’s New Hope, Pa., studio is run today by his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. Amid the bucolia, craftsmen and draftswomen are busy sanding and polishing burled wood, tweaking drawings, even refinishing some of the furniture from the last half of the 20th century.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the National Park Service in 2008, this working studio is open the public Saturdays for self-guided tours, and through guided tours on the first Saturday of the month from April to October.

There are 14 buildings here, many of thin-shell construction, designed by Nakashima, who earned a master’s degree in architecture at M.I.T. and worked in France and Japan before being interned during World War II.

Nakashima, his wife, Marion, and Mira, born in 1942, were forced to live behind barbed wire in a “relocation center” in Idaho. While there, Nakashima made the most of his time and honed his woodworking skills with a Japanese carpenter.

But the interest in woodworking dates back even before internment, according to his daughter. “He came back from a stint in the Far East and saw a Frank Lloyd Wright house under construction,” says Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall. “He saw so much time and energy lost between the designer, engineer, construction and the client – it was an ongoing battle. The architect had no control and it made for a bad result.”

As a woodworker, Nakashima could control the design process from beginning to end.

Antonin Raymond, the architect he worked for in Japan, sponsored Nakashima and his family to be released from the camp and brought to a farm in New Hope, then an artist colony. The educated, accomplished thinker went to work as a subsistence farmer, exchanging labor for the first three acres of what is now Nakashima complex.

Even as a chicken farmer, Nakashima was producing furniture on the side. The family lived in a tent as Nakashima built the house, where Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall’s brother, Kevin (born 1954), lives today. “My mother and I took a trip to California and stayed all winter while my father enclosed the living room,” she recalls. But mostly “my mother was a good trouper. It was better than living in the camps, which she thought was a terrible place to raise children.”

The thin-shell hyperbolic paraboloid style used on many of the buildings here was inspired by Felix Candela, the Spanish engineer whose work influenced mid-20th century Mexican architecture. Nakashima designed two chapels in this style, one in Mexico and one in New Mexico. “He left architecture as a profession but architecture never left him,” says Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall, who studied architecture as an undergraduate at Harvard and earned a master’s in architecture at Waseda University in Japan.

The Conoid Studio, built in 1957, is thus named because the shape of the roof was generated from a cone. Nakashima’s famous Conoid chairs were designed for this studio. One is required to remove shoes before stepping on the wood floor, made from walnut and cherry that wasn’t quite up to the grade for furniture. The studio is used as a showroom, with vintage Nakashima pieces as well as artwork by Ben Shahn, the Roosevelt, N.J., artist who became a good friend after purchasing a Nakashima table.

“It was a cold winter day, and they put the top down on their convertible,” recounts Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall. “My dad helped them load the table in the car, then sent them off, with Bernarda wearing a wool cap he’d had in the camp.”

Although there is probably enough wood in storage for many years to come, the studio occasionally acquires trees from developers who are taking them down, or from Willard Bros. in Lawrence. We pass the refinishing studio, where a secret formula of tung and linseed oils is used to bring out the wood’s grain.

“Dad liked to hire people with no background in woodworking so we could train them,” says Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall. The studio employs 18 who work in the office, grounds and studio, including three originally hired by Nakashima.

One of Nakashima’s most prodigious commissions came from Evelyn and Arthur Krosnick of Princeton. They began buying his furniture in the 1950s. As he did with many of his clients, Nakashima became close friends with the Krosnicks.

In 1989, the Krosnick home, designed by a Wright disciple, burned to the ground, including all the furniture in it. They hired J. Robert Hillier to redesign their house, and Nakashima, in the last year of his life, agreed to rebuild the furniture. Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall oversaw the completion of 150 pieces, after her father’s death, in about three years. She calls her own line “Keisho,” meaning continuation. After working with her father for 20 years, she has worked on her own for another 20.

Most recently, in order to sell the house and build a new house in Arizona, the Krosnicks sold off the furniture through Sotheby’s Auction House. Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall is saddened that, after rebuilding so much furniture to fit the needs and specifications of the family, it was ultimately sold for the money it would generate.

The grounds are highlighted with sculpture of Harry Bertoia, an Isamu Noguchi friend, and landscaping by Nakashima and his father, including five dawn redwoods planted in the 1950s. There is a Chinese chestnut and a pawlonia. Inside the buildings, there are rice paper lamps as well as Japanese-influenced pottery, including work by Toshiko Takaezu.

The final building on the property, constructed in 1975, is the reception house, where guests stay. It is also used for meetings, and features a large mosaic-tiled bath area incorporating the names of all the Nakashima grandchildren. (Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall has four children, including Ru Amagasu, a furniture maker who is lead designer at Willard Brothers.) A tatami room with a mat-covered floor serves as a spare bedroom.

Around a low table are ottomans once made for Nelson Rockefeller. The antique, hand-woven fabric covering the ottomans didn’t meet the needs of Mrs. Rockefeller, though. “I’m happy to get Happy’s rejects,” says Ms. Nakashima-Yarnall.

  • George Nakashima Woodworker, 1847 Aquetong Road, New Hope, Pa., offers free self-guided tours of the working facility and showroom, the Conoid Studio and Finishing Room Saturdays, 1-4:30 p.m. Guided tours are offered the first Saturday of the month April-October, 10:30 a.m.; tickets costs $20; res. req.: 215-862-2272; www.nakashimawoodworker.com
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2 Responses to Inhabiting the Spirit

  1. Pingback: The Artful Blogger! » O do di do do

  2. Pingback: The Artful Blogger! » Beauty in Imperfection

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