"A tree provides perhaps our most intimate contact with nature. A tree sits like an avatar, an embodiment of the immutable, far beyond the pains of man. We woodworkers have the audacity to shape timber from these noble trees. .. We work with boards from these trees, to fulfill their yearning for a second life, to release their richness and beauty.
From George Nakashima, `The Soul of a Tree’
I was first introduced to the art and legacy of Nakashima — whose deceptively simple designs are characterized by the natural, asymmetrical edges of the trees from which they are born — by my grandfather, who was an artist and art director of Audubon magazine. He met Nakashima in 1946 through architect Antonin Raymond, who helped Nakashima settle in New Hope after Nakashima and his wife, Marion, and daughter Mira had been forced to spend a year in an internment camp in Idaho during World War II. While my mother and uncle played in Raymond’s barns down the road during several summers, my grandfather helped Nakashima build his house on the land that has housed the Nakashima workshop and studio for 50 years. He would speak of his close friend with such reverence, his voice often quavered. He is a master, my grandfather would say, I will never be an artist like him.
Nakashima, originally trained as an architect, designed my grandfather’s first home in Weston, Connecticut, and made several pieces of furniture for him, including a dining table that attached on one end directly to the wall. It had signature Nakashima butterfly joints and a lustrous oil finish, its edges the natural curving edges of the tree itself, with knots and bumps intact, just sanded smooth. As a child, I remember tracing the seductively uneven edges of that table, my hand a tiny boat tossed in a stormy sea, unconsciously making that same sojourn through dozens of Christmas and Easter dinners. You couldn’t help but touch it. That table had its own quiet yet indomitable presence in the room; it held stories inside it, stories of the forest it came from and of the family that owned it.
Like my grandfather, Princeton residents Evelyn and Arthur Krosnick, were smitten with Nakashima, who preferred to be called a woodworker rather than a designer or a craftsman and whose work was influenced by Shaker and Adirondack furniture, as well as Japanese Zen Buddhism. "It was an instantaneous, almost chemical thing," Evelyn says of the first time she and Arthur visited Nakashima’s studio in New Hope. The Krosnicks’ home on Stuart Road is the only private home furnished entirely in Nakashima — right down to the picture frames, lamp bases, doorknobs, and headboards. Every piece is exquisitely crafted from such luscious woods as Oregon myrtle, Persian walnut, and rosewood.
A young couple who met in the 1950s at Temple University, where he was a medical student and she was studying music education and early childhood education, they married and began in the 1960s amassing what would become the world’s second largest private collection of Nakashima — 130 pieces in all, most of them commissioned. (Happy Rockefeller holds the largest collection, over 200 pieces, which she and her late husband, Nelson Rockefeller, commissioned for Greenrock, their Japanese-inspired home near Tarrytown, New York.)
"Every birthday, I’d ask George to make something," says Evelyn, such as a set of right and left-handed rocking chairs (with one extra-wide curved arm like an old-fashioned school desk) or an L-shaped desk to commemorate Arthur’s appointment as the editor of the Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey. "George was attentive to us," says Evelyn. The three became lifelong friends.
As Evelyn and Arthur Krosnick raised their two children, they filled their home with Nakashima — first their Bucks County home, Melody Woods, and then their Princeton home, Melody Woods II. The house was a perfect complement to Nakashima: Built in 1979, it was designed by architect John Randal McDonald, who had built their first home and was very much influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite a tragic fire in 1989 (more on that in a moment), the house and furniture were painstakingly recreated.
So when the Krosnicks recently announced that they have put their house up for sale, the questions arose — why would they want to move and what would happen to the furniture?
Evelyn, whose original vocation was as a music educator, simply quotes a line from The King and I: "By our children, we are taught." Jody, now a surgeon in the Midwest, and Jon, a professor at Stanford, approached their parents a year ago and asked them to build a compound to house the Nakashima collection at a location where the family can be closer together. The solution turned out to be Scottsdale, Arizona, the home of Taliesen West, where the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright lives at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture.
"I always felt Frank Lloyd Wright and Nakashima had a great deal in common," says Evelyn. "Their talent came from the earth. Nakashima’s trees were borne of the earth. Wright’s houses were borne of the earth. We want to create a setting for George Nakashima to join Frank Lloyd Wright." Edgar Tafel, a friend of the Krosnicks and one of Wright’s original apprentices, called Taliesin on the Krosnicks’ behalf. Now Gustad Irani, assistant dean of the school of architecture, is designing a home for the Krosnicks on a five-and-a-half acre site, which will represent a true architectural first: the first time Taliesin will have designed a Wright home for a collection of Nakashima furniture.
The magnitude and significance of this undertaking becomes all the greater to those who know what happened on the day of May 23, 1989. For it was on this day, at 10:30 a.m., that the Krosnicks world came to a grinding halt. "Doctor was in his office at Carnegie Center, and I was in the kitchen, preparing for a lunch. The housekeeper was in the bedroom. A plumber was in the basement repairing the water heater. He had an acetylene torch to repair a simple leak and had set the torch down on the floor as he emptied the water heater. He did not know that gas had been leaking from the torch for an hour and a half. When the water heater was lit, the torch was lit, and the entire basement blew up in flames — the flames just swept through the house. My housekeeper saw soot coming up through the vent. The plumber ran upstairs, followed by two feet of soot and yelled, `Get out of your house. It’s on fire!’ I called the housekeeper `Get out of the house.’ I ran to our neighbor’s. I called Doctor. The neighbor called 911."
The horror grew worse when the firefighters arrived: The hydrant at the end of their driveway was not connected. The fire truck did not have a pump (they could have connected it to the Krosnicks’ pool). The firefighters went to the next street, Hardy Drive, but there was no hydrant. They had to go all the way to the Great Road. In the end, everything was gone: the house, the furniture.
"The joy in all of this horror," remembers Evelyn, "was a big package full of photos we received the very next day from the New York Times." The paper had approached the Krosnicks almost two years prior, after Charles Kurault’s "On the Road" did a piece on Melody Woods II. A reporter interviewed the Krosnicks and the paper took hundreds of photos of the house and the furniture in preparation for an article that was to run in conjunction with "George Nakashima: Full Circle," a major retrospective at the American Craft Museum in New York in 1989; the opening reception was on May 8, just three weeks before the fire. The Krosnicks had agreed to loan the retrospective three pieces: Arthur’s editor’s desk; a piece of art by Ben Shahn (an illustration and excerpt from a volume of Rilke poems) framed by Nakashima; and their most prized piece, the Arlyn table (pictured on the cover), made from a piece of burled redwood from the Muir Woods in California.
Evelyn remembers first seeing the wood for that table three years earlier, in the Minguren Museum, named for a crafts movement in Japan Nakashima became involved with and built on the grounds of Nakashima’s studio in the 1960s to house unique specimens of wood from around the world. It was 1986 and Evelyn had come to view Nakashima’s first Altar for Peace, now at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. With her was Derek Ostergard, then dean of the Bard Center for the Decorative Arts, curator of the upcoming retrospective, and author of a book published in conjunction with the show.
"Derek and I were standing back in a corner with George, when Derek saw this piece of wood. It was a piece of burl from a redwood tree that George had brought back from Muir Woods, which had been standing on its end for 15 years." A burl is a growth, an offshoot of the redwood that is technically a malignancy. But Ostergard saw that the piece had free edges around its entire circumference, sliced where there had been no branches. He pointed it out to Nakashima. "This cannot be used — it’s too soft, it’s too fragile," said the woodworker.
Evelyn knew how closely Nakashima knew his wood, as if it were his own child. "His life was in those pieces of wood," says Evelyn. "He would put his nose right up against a piece of wood and X-ray it. `No, don’t use this,’ he might say. `It will twist,’ meaning it will warp, it will not be healthy.’"
Ostergard, however, known by close friends for his dry sense of humor, ribbed Nakashima, saying, "We don’t want this old man to keep repeating his designs." The woodworker laughed and responded to the challenge by building the nine-foot-long Arlyn table ("Ar" for Arthur; "lyn" for Evelyn), which takes nine men to move it, was born. It became the focal point of the retrospective, and it — and the framed Ben Shahn — were the only two pieces not destroyed in the fire. (The Krosnicks had brought the editor’s desk back to their home after the opening reception). Nakashima, in fact, named many of his pieces after clients, many of them doctors — for example, the Kornblut cabinet and his children — the Mira chairs, the Kevin table.
Ironically, the New York Times did not run the article to be timed with the opening of the retrospective, as the Krosnicks thought they would. The paper decided instead to run it after the initial crowds had thinned, in order to encourage more people to attend. "They called every week to say they were holding it one more week," says Evelyn. The article, now with a very different angle, ran the day after the fire, and utilized much of the material from the original article. On that day, the Krosnicks went to visit George. "It was George’s birthday. I walked up to him and said, ‘George, why did this happen?’ He said, `There is no reason. We will rebuild your lives.’ I said, `Why are you saying this?’ And he said, `First, my wood is better now, and my work is better now.’ And he was right," adds Evelyn. "George knew his early pieces were primitive, glued, etcetera."
Nakashima, then 84, stopped every order worldwide for two years and started rebuilding, with his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnell, and his staff. They used photographs and some original sketches Nakashima had of the furniture. The Krosnicks lived at the Hyatt and worked with the Hillier Architectural Group, under the guidance of Bob Hillier, to rebuild their home with a jumpstart from the memories of the original builders, William King and Ray Bowers ("the three saviors who put us back together," says Evelyn) and with help from the New York Times’ photographs, Evelyn’s own keen visual memory, a set of the original plans the township had, and the expertise of general contractor and builder Louis Balestrieri, who the Krosnicks call "awe-inspiring."
George Nakashima died a year and a month after the fire — on June 15, 1990; his daughter, Mira, took over the restoration of the collection and the studio itself (see sidebar, page 45). Remarkably, says Krosnick, "Mira’s drawings look just like George’s."
The Krosnicks moved into their "new" home, Melody Woods III, in 1993 and dedicated the house to Nakashima. Behind a bronze plaque by the front door is a "time capsule" sealed in the stone wall that contains a dedication booklet telling the story of the rebuilding and newspaper articles about the fire. Inside the house, a bronze bust of Nakashima, made by Ben Shahn’s son Jonathan (only five exist and one is in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.), sits high on a cabinet in the Arlyn room. Another bust, or more accurately a wooden likeness of Nakashima’s head, Jonathan made from a piece of beech simultaneously with the bronze bust, stands adjacent to the front door. Of the wooden likeness, Evelyn says with affection: "George said that his furniture gave a second life to the tree; we decided that we gave George a second life — in a tree. I speak to him every day and tweak his nose."
As plans to build the compound in Scottsdale jelled, Evelyn "had a conference with George — his bronze head and his wooden persona. `We have to take you to another home. Don’t answer me yet: I want to take you away from your original site.’ He responded, ‘I give you permission. I will go with you.’ My dreams are coming true. When we were able to rebuild our home, we were given a second life. Now we have a third life."
The Krosnicks’ third life promises to hold as much influence in the worlds of medicine and music as their former lives did. Born in Trenton to parents who owned a food market, Arthur was one of eight children and decided to become a doctor at the age of five, so intrigued was he with his own family’s doctor. After completing his residency at Penn in 1954, Arthur started a successful practice specializing in diabetes — Nakashima made the furniture for his office in Carnegie Center.
An esteemed diabetes specialist, he is clinical associate professor at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and is currently involved in groundbreaking research on psychotic patients with diabetes at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, having documented that their diabetes can be treated successfully despite their mental illness.
Evelyn, who followed up her Temple studies with interior design coursework at Philadelphia College of Art, started her own design firm, Arlyn Design. But it was her love of music that was to make her true mark on Princeton. The daughter of an artistic family of Viennese descent on both sides, Evelyn was trained in voice from the age of three. "I fed my children music before they were born," she says. Once they started to study instruments and she found there was no youth orchestra for them to join, Evelyn approached Jack Ellis, chair of the Lawrenceville’s School’s music department, about starting a youth orchestra. When Ellis asked the local musician’s union president for funding, the president replied, "We’ll do more than that — we’ll give you the Mercer County Symphonic Orchestra," a training ground for young musicians. The orchestra eventually was renamed the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra. Evelyn worked for the orchestra for 30 years.
No doubt the Krosnicks will make an equally impressive impact in Scottsdale. Dr. Krosnick will undertake research within the Pima Indian population in Arizona, which have the highest prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in the world. Evelyn plans to become active in the music programming at Taliesin and with the Phoenix Opera Company, and will hold musical benefits at the Krosnick compound.
The new house will be very Japanese in design, says Evelyn. Coincidentally, architect Irani, who himself is Indian, has two assistants who are Japanese. Will the house be called Melody Woods IV? "Oh, no," says Evelyn. "There are no woods there. Just gorgeous 360-degree views of mountains and desert."
As for Melody Woods III, listed at $3 million (Peggy Henderson is the Princeton realtor), a new owner has yet to be named. Several parties have expressed interest in the house, a one-story maze of open, geometrically-shaped rooms. It is a grand home, not grand in size as much as in presence, with Nakashima furniture or without. Two built-in wood counters, lining two pass-throughs in the kitchen, and two ledges — in the dining room and Dr. Krosnick’s home office — will remain as part of the house. The Nakashima studio has expressed interest in helping the prospective new owners create new furniture. Whether or not they do, clearly Nakashima’s spirit abides here — steeped in the interior walls of beveled Western cedar siding. "You will feel a spirit when you come into the house," Evelyn told a visitor. "You will not be able to speak."
It is true. When the visitor enters the house and slips on one of a dozen pairs of black velvet slippers provided by the owners, she is greeted by a large photograph of George Nakashima and the bust carved from beech. Just beyond the foyer, the music room rises like an altar to nature herself — floor-to-ceiling plate glass looks out onto a stone patio and pool and the woods beyond. The house, in true Frank Lloyd Wright form, blends seamlessly and organically with the trees, moss, and river stones that make up the Japanese style garden outside. Every room, each its own quiet gallery, at once intimate and majestic, seems proud of its posture, its contribution to the whole.
Are the Krosnicks sad to be leaving Princeton and Melody Woods III, their own phoenix that literally rose from the ashes? "We aren’t leaving. We’re moving forward," says Evelyn. "We should not wait. This is the time."
Dr. Arthur and Evelyn Krosnick’s plans to create a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired home designed to house their private collection of Nakashima furniture come in the midst of a nationwide celebration of the famed woodworker.
George Nakashima’s daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, has written a new book about her father, "Nature, Form, and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima," (Harry N. Abrams, 276 pages, 265 illustrations, 160 in full color, $75). The book’s official launch will take place on Saturday, November 8, at the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia. Nakashima-Yarnall has served as creative director of the master artisan’s studio in New Hope since his death in 1990, overseeing every aspect from design and shop supervision to lumber purchases, exhibit coordination, sales, and marketing.
"Nature, Form, and Spirit" chronicles the personal, spiritual, and philosophical journey of an extraordinary craftsman whose reverence for nature fueled his artistic inspiration, telling the story of his remarkable career that spanned 50 years, while also revealing the accomplishments of Nakashima’s work as an architect.
The Moderne Gallery, site of the new exhibit, has shown and sold the work of Nakashima since 1985. The exhibit features tables, chairs, benches, and case works designed and crafted by both Nakashima and Nakashima-Yarnall.
Gallery owner/director Robert Aibel, who also serves as a consultant to Mira Nakashima, says that today the furniture of George Nakashima is one of the most important and growing vintage markets in the United States.
Nakashima-Yarnall, who graduated from Harvard and then earned an architecture degree from Waseda University in Tokyo in 1966, will give give two area lectures and book signings. The first, titled "Studio Furniture in America and the Nakashima Aesthetic," will take place Thursday, November 6, at the Bard Graduate Center in New York. The second will be held at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown Wednesday, December 3.
Nakashima’s work will be the subject of a major retrospective at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, opening Sunday, November 23 through May 30. The exhibit will be complemented by paintings and drawings of Nakashima’s friend, artist Ben Shahn. Nakashima’s works will also be featured at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in "The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990," opening Wednesday, November 12 through February 8.
Moderne Gallery, 111 North Third Street, Philadelphia. 215-923-8536, www.modernegallery.com. The exhibit runs through January 17.
James A. Michener Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown. 215-340- 9800, www.michenermuseum.com. Lecture and book signing, Wednesday, December 3, 7 p.m. $10; $15 non-members.
Bard Graduate Center, 36 West 86th Street, New York. 212-501-3011. Lecture and book signing, Thursday, November 6, 6 to 8 p.m. $25; $17 seniors, students.
George Nakashima Woodworker Studio, 293 Aquetong Road, New Hope, 215-862-2272, www.nakashimawoodworker.com. Open to the public, Saturdays, 1 to 4:30 p.m.