A skilled and spiritual craftsman, George Nakashima crafted wood furniture that elevated and showcased natural forms.

George Nakashima.  Photo: Nakashima Archives

Working with a reverence for his material that bordered on spiritual, woodworker and designer George Nakashima (1915-1990) created one of the more influential legacies in furniture in the 20th century. Cutting wood was like cutting diamonds, he once said, a philosophy reflected in his body of work, filled with intricate pieces that preserved and magnified the beauty of every knot and grain. He would often keep boards around his workshop in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for years before they would reveal themselves to him.

George Nakashima in his workshop.

Nakashima studied architecture at École Américaine des Beaux Arts and M.I.T. and began working in the ‘30s, at one point journeying to India to design an ashram. His work earned him the fitting Sanskrit name, Sundarananda (“one who delights in beauty”). He returned from overseas to set up shop in Seattle in the early ‘40s before, like other Japanese-Americans during WWII, he was interned by the government. While at Camp Minidoka in Idaho, Nakashima met a fellow internee who was a master Japanese craftsman, who taught him traditional practices and philosophies that informed his future work. His career blossomed after the war, when he began creating pieces for companies like Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, as well as his own custom work, such as a 200-piece collection for Nelson Rockefeller’s mansion. His reverence for nature and inner beauty was reflected in one of his last projects, a massive peace altar installed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. His designs are still being made by his daughter and the staff at George Nakashima Woodworker.

Splay-Leg Table

1. Splay-Leg Table 

Impressed by the simple elegance and understated forms of his work, Hans and Florence Knoll added Nakashima’s work to their roster. This table was designed  in 1946 with a low-sheen finish and live grain patterns. Photo courtesy George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Impressed by the simple elegance and understated forms of his work, Hans and Florence Knoll added Nakashima’s work to their roster. This table was designed in 1946 with a low-sheen finish and live grain patterns.

Photo Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

Straight Chair

2. Straight Chair 

Another original Knoll design from 1946, the Straight Chair is Nakashima’s spin on the standard Windsor, incorporating traditional techniques, Nakashima sometimes called himself a

Another original Knoll design from 1946, the Straight Chair is Nakashima’s spin on the standard Windsor, incorporating traditional techniques, Nakashima sometimes called himself a “Japanese Shaker,” in reference to his fusion of classic, Modernist, and Shaker styles.

Photo Courtesy of George Nakashima Woodworker, S.A.

See the full story on Dwell.com: Design Icon: George Nakashima
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