Born around the turn of the 20th century, and enduring such hardships like the Great Depression and being placed in a Japanese Internment Camp during World War II, George Nakashima eventually became one of the most influential woodworkers and modernist of our time and continues to have an influence on designers today.
George Nakashima was born in Spokane, WA in 1905. Nakashima attended the University of Washington in Seattle where he studied forestry and architecture. After graduating from the University of Washington, Nakashima briefly studied design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design before transferring to MIT where he would eventually earn his master's degree in architecture in 1931. Upon graduation, Nakashima began working at as an architectural designer for the Long Island State Park Commission where he remained until the effects of the Great Depression left him unemployed.
Following his unemployment, Nakashima purchased an around-the-world tramp steamship ticket and subsequently spent time in France, North Africa, and finally ended in Japan where he would receive an education that would profoundly impact his work for the rest of his life.
George Nakashima arrived in Japan in 1934 and was soon introduced to Antonin Raymond, who had worked on the Imperial Hotel project in Tokyo with Frank Lloyd Wright. Nakashima began working in Raymond office and there met Junzo Yoshimura and Kunio Maekawa who introduced Nakashima to traditional Japanese architecture and the teachings of Buddism and Shintoism. It is by studying traditional Japanese culture that Nakashima began to understand the way the Japanese honored nature by coexisting with it instead of damaging it.
It was also in Japan that Nakashima met his future wife, Marion Okajima, who was a Japanese American working as a private English tutor. Shortly after meeting, the couple returned to the United States and married in Los Angeles, California in 1941. After marrying, they moved up to Seattle, Washington where Nakashima turned his attention to the art of woodworking and in doing so added his voice to the world of modern design.
World War II and the Internment Camp
On December 7, 1941, just as George Nakashima was settling into his life in Seattle with his bride, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered that all Japanese Americans relocate to internment camps and the Nakashimas promptly moved to an internment camp in Hunt, Idaho.
As chance would have it, Nakashima met Gentaro Hikogawa, an experienced Issei carpenter. Hikogawa and Nakashima would collaborate on several projects together, and Hikogawa would help Nakashima further refine his woodworking skills and also inspired the use of wood butterfly joints that Nakashima was famously known for using.
Nakashima was able to leave the camp in May of 1943 after the petition of many supporters, including his old employer, Antonin Raymond. Upon leaving the camp, the Nakashimas moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania to live with Raymond as George Nakashima and his wife attempted to rebuild their lives.
Despite Nakashima's ability to make the best of horrible circumstances, he later expressed his feelings about his experience in the internment camp in his seminal book, "The Soul of a Tree." Nakashima stated "I felt at the time (it was) a stupid, insensitive act, one by which my country could only hurt itself. It was a policy of unthinking racism." It was these feelings about his experience in the internment camp that would lead Nakashima to use his woodworking skills to also campaign for peace around the world.
Nakashima's impressive career in woodworking officially began after about a year of working for Raymond when Nakashima was able to save enough money to purchase a piece of land and build a workshop. Impressively, Nakashima constructed his workshop by hand from stone that he found on his land as he explained, "at no time did we have more than fifty dollars in cash, but by scrounging materials, gathering stones off the property, digging foundation by hand, and working evenings and weekends, I was able to build a rough structure by Thanksgiving."
After constructing his workshop, Nakashima worked hard to create original, quality pieces that unlocked the true beauty of each piece of wood. He firmly believed that each piece of wood held only one ideal use and that it was the job of the woodworker to unlock that one ideal use. His ability to get back to the essence of the best function of a piece of wood, is perhaps how he best embodied the spirit of modernism. In no time, Nakashima gained popularity, first around New Hope, Pennsylvania, then around the United States, and finally around the world.
Though Nakashima is perhaps best known for his beautiful pieces of furniture, he also had an impressive career designing and building churches in the United States and Japan. Much of his excellent design was influenced by his disappointment in the quality of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings that he had viewed while living in California in 1941. The disconnect between Wright's impressive design and the poor workmanship convinced Nakashima that an architect must take charge of production from start to finish. As a result, Nakashima produced extraordinary, lasting buildings both in the United States and abroad.
Final Days and Beyond
Throughout his career, Nakashima worked to inspire peace in everything he made and so it is no surprised that Nakashima's last great work was dedicating himself to the Peace Altar Project. Nakashima used the Peace Altar Project to create inspiring altars both in the United States and abroad. His wish was that the altars would be used as centers for meditation and prayer in hopes that this would incite peace around the world.
George Nakashima's fantastic career came to an end with his passing in 1990, but his incredible legacy lives on. Eighteen years after his death, his home, studio, and workshop were listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and then more recently they were also designated as a National Historic Landmark. Today, many modern designers have been inspired by Nakashima's thoughtful work and also work to determine the ideal use for each piece of material they find.