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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the August 29, 2001

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Nakashima Celebration

Already internationally esteemed, whether as a


craftsman, a woodworking artist, or some hybrid of those, George


(1905-1990) was an American-born Modernist. The exhibition now at

the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, "George Nakashima

and the Modernist Moment," displays his furniture along with


pieces designed by six European furniture-makers. The show’s thesis:

that although Nakashima was certainly a Modernist, he worked more

in the European tradition — marked by small production runs,


and intense appreciation, sometimes bordering on the spiritual, for

the material being used — than in the American Modernist model

— exemplified by Charles and Ray Eames, whose high-tech designs

were explicitly created for mass production.

So goes the theory supporting the 32 pieces of furniture on view at

the Michener through September 16: 18 by Nakashima, the remaining

14 by six Europeans — Alexandre Noll, Charlotte Perriand, and

Jean Prouve, of France; Carlo Mollino and Gio Ponti, of Italy; and

Finn Juhl, a Dane. With no claim of direct influence among the seven

furniture makers, there is yet the reality that they all lived in

the same period, designed for and worked with wood — and in the

case of Nakashima and Perriand, visited Japan at about the same time.

So, guest curator Steven Beyer persuasively argues, there are


to be found among the pieces.

All of which suggests (without intending to sound anti-intellectual)

Walt Whitman’s poem, "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,"

in which the narrator soon tires of hearing astronomical proofs and

figures and seeing charts and diagrams, and chooses instead to wander

out into the night and look at the stars for himself. In the same

spirit, those interested in George Nakashima, a long-time Bucks County

treasure, can simply enjoy this exhibition of furniture by him and

six contemporaries. The woods are beautiful, and the designs —

many of which have since become classics in their own right —

are fascinating. (As might be expected, the greatest frustration is

having to look at the furniture without being able to touch it, or

— the ultimate test — sit on it.)

More than half the Nakashima pieces on view date from the 1940s and

’50s, and the other designers are wholly represented by pieces from

those decades. It must have been relatively easy to borrow Nakashima

work for the exhibition; none of the other designers has more than

three works on exhibit, and one wonders how typical they are.

For instance, though credited with creating the chaise lounge and

making innovative use of tubular metal, Charlotte Perriand is


by two wooden tables and a "Slipper Chair," a low, upholstered

piece that may have facilitated the fastening of granny boots or


At that, the tables are heavy and truly thick — somewhat hand-hewn

looking. A stolid oak console (1950) resembles nothing so much as

a weighty ironing board, and the 1953 wood "Mexique Table"

stands on somewhat incongruously slender black steel legs.

The only one of the Europeans not trained as an architect (as


himself was), but as a sculptor, Alexandre Noll worked in sycamore

to produce a remarkable commode, or chest, with two drawers. Rounded,

even bulbous, the chest’s smooth curves seem to glow with


right down to its four giant ball feet. It would seduce the most


tree-hugger, and a Hobbit would love it. Antoni Gaudi, he of Spain’s

Casa Mila Apartment House, would doubtless approve the rounded edges,

the bulging drawer pulls, the thick-walled wooden frame with


dovetails, and not a right-angle in sight.

Noll could have stopped right there. But of course he

didn’t. His "Table Basse," also of sycamore, communes with

Charlotte Perriand’s wooden tables, to right and left of it.


secretive about his methods, Noll eschewed travel and vacations,


to concentrate on his wood work. He regarded each piece of furniture

as a work of art, a sculpture, so he hardly ever made series.

A counterpoint to Noll, Gio Ponti’s table is wholly linear — its

straight legs, its rectangular top, and even the design thereon of

wood and enamel on copper. His small black, toothpicky "super

leggera" chair looks fragile, even brittle — something a


"lady" with perfect posture might perch on to drink her tea.

Antithetical to Ponti’s furniture in appearance and probably in


Finn Juhl’s 1949 "Chieftain Chair," of rosewood and leather,

invites a heap-big-anybody to sink into it. Although massive overall,

it is light in effect because the curving wood frame encloses generous

negative space, and the organic cushion shapes are reminiscent of

Jean Arp’s sculpture forms. Both striking and capacious, this chair

dominates the scene. Starting in the 1960s, Juhl became forever linked

with "Danish modern" teak and leather furniture, a style that

has remained both distinctive and popular.

A maple rolltop desk like no other — because its barrel top is

echoed below for a keg shape from the side — is the work of Carlo

Mollino, characterized as one who went to extremes in both his life

and design. Jean Prouve’s "Rounded Compass Desk" in steel,

plywood, and aluminum may have been a departure then, but today with

its black matte finish, it would be at home in any Staples


superstore. Prouve’s designs epitomize the cool impersonality of


Nakashima’s furniture is positioned among the 14 European pieces,

prompting a short pre-quiz: From the total of 32, identify the 18

made by George Nakashima. Those who imagine the task to be simple,

and who proceed to eliminate anything that’s upholstered, anything

but dark-hued wood, anything without "free" (untrimmed) edges,

is in for a surprise. Some of his furniture was upholstered, was built

of light-hued woods, and had trimmed edges.

The Nakashima furniture in this exhibition was made as early as 1944

and as late as 1970; it includes chairs of all kinds, a stool, end

tables and coffee tables, a desk, a bench, a room divider, a hanging

wall shelf. Most of the pieces were made in and for Nakashima Studio,

although some were designed for the commercial manufacturers Knoll

and Widdicomb-Mueller.

Born in Spokane, Washington, and then long-acquainted with the forests

of the Pacific Northwest, Nakashima earned architecture degrees from

the University of Washington and MIT. He toured Europe; worked as

an architect in Japan, where met his future wife; and stayed for some

time at an ashram in India, as both a designer-builder and a spiritual

disciple. By the time he returned to the West Coast, he had decided

to work with wood, rather than in architecture, so he could coordinate

every step of his work, from start to finish. His book, "The Soul

of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections," published in 1981,


articulated and illustrated his heartfelt philosophy toward his


of choice.

Dating from 1944, the Michener’s two earliest examples of Nakashima’s

work are a chair and stool made of cherry and maple woods, with seats

of woven sea grass. These two look much more modern than his 1946

cypress wood "Brogren Stool," a seeming small cousin to


console, and more distinctive than the Knoll coffee table from the

same time: an oddly raw-looking, angular piece in walnut and birch,

with a raised rim at its perimeter.

His 1950 walnut and poplar "Low Mira Chair" is a reminder

of his firstborn child, Mira, now vice president of Nakashima Studio

and designer of her own "Keisho" (Japanese for continuation)

line of Nakashima furniture (featured in U.S. 1, May 3, 2000). Named

for Mira Richard, Mother of the ashram in India, Mira was a baby when

the family was placed in a U.S. internment camp in Idaho after the

attack on Pearl Harbor. The family resettled in New Hope in 1943,

and Mira’s brother, Kevin, was born there in the 1950s.

With a three-sided seat and its references to the classic Windsor

chair signaling the American origin of Nakashima’s furniture, this

child-size chair foreshadowed later pieces that would look ever more

Nakashima-esque. One example: the 1961 "Conoid Bench with


a curving sweep of wood to sit on, and a row of spokes to rest


Pronounced CONE-oid, and meaning a section of a cone, "conoid"

also describes the roof design of a studio in the Nakashima compound.

Two styles of "Slab Coffee Table," supported either by legs

or a vertical slat, embody the signature free-edge, beautifully. The

wood grain of one table top looks like the surface of a pond right

after a pebble is tossed in, and then, with feathery, shadowed


it follows the curve of the wood.

Some visitors may be surprised by a 1960 upholstered

chair Nakashima designed for Widdicomb, displayed in "Modern


next to Finn Juhl’s "Chieftain Chair." At first, except for

the woodwork, it doesn’t look like his. Look longer, though, and see

the suggestion of a kimono-shape to the upholstered part, including

two elongated pillows and three buttons that add to the impression.

Starting at an unseen vanishing point behind the upholstered back,

the chair’s arms widen appealingly, both in size and angle, as they

come forward.

And, ah, Nakashima’s hanging wall shelf, circa 1961, of curving,


rosewood, with two drawers right below it — an elegant little

length of wood, at once aesthetic and functional.

The entrance to the "Modern Moment" is furnished with a table

stocked with publications about Nakashima and modern wood furniture,

and ringed by his chairs with sea grass seats. A video runs


nearby. One floor up, a stop at the "Nakashima Memorial Reading

Room" that Mira Nakashima-Yarnall designed for the Michener’s

1993 expansion might be a fitting finale to your visit — one


an Asian-style setting for more Nakashima wood works of art.

— Pat Summers

James A. Michener Art Museum , 138 South Pine Street,


215-340-9800. Museum hours

Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m.

to 5 p.m.; and Wednesday evenings to 9 p.m. Admission $6 adults; $2.50

students; children under 12 free.

A Nakashima Celebration . Museum-wide activities for all

ages celebrating the work of George Nakashima and the six designers

featured in the exhibit "George Nakashima and the Modernist


Events iclude an introduction to Japanese classical dance by Sachiyo

Ito of the Juilliard School and an acoustic guitar performance by

Tim Farrell, using the George Nakashima Commemorative Martin Guitar.

Preregister.Saturday, September 8, 2 to 5 p.m.

The Collector’s Market for Nakashima Furniture . Wine and

cheese reception followed by panel discussion in conjunction with

the show "George Nakashima and the Modernist Moment." Speakers

include Robert Aibel, Moderne Gallery, Philadelphia; collectors Arthur

and Evelyn Krosnick; Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, the late artist’s


and vice-president of Nakashima Studio, and David Rago, auctioneer

and publisher of Modernism Magazine. Preregister, $35. Saturday,

September 8, 5:30 pm to 8 p.m.

George Nakashima and His Influence , an afternoon symposium

in conjunction with the exhibition "George Nakashima and the


Moment." Mira Nakashima-Yarnall opens with a talk on "The

Life and Work of George Nakashima." At 2 p.m.. Matilda McQuaid,

associate curator of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art,

talks on "Nakashima and the Mass Production of Craftsmanship.

At 3:50 p.m., a lecture by guest curator, Steve Beyer, whose


aims to recontextualize Nakashima’s work within the practice of


modernism. Exhibit runs through September 16. Preregister, $40.


September 9, 1 to 5 p.m.

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