A recent visit to Pennsylvania took me to the studio and workshop of famed woodworker George Nakashima. Crossing disciplines between architecture and woodworking, he is considered one of the most influential furniture designers of the 20th century, bringing together his Japanese heritage with American and international style design to become a father of the American craft movement. Nakashima’s unparalleled ability to know his subject matter and decipher the best use of each part of a tree propelled him to create some of the most beautiful furniture in the world in his workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. His finely honed craft and depth of inquiry were essential for each piece of furniture.

"Each tree, every part of each tree, has only one perfect use… The woodworker, applying a thousand skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realize its true potential."
— G. Nakashima

During my visit, I discovered deep parallels to my own work and philosophy at Overland. Like Nakashima, we strive to look beneath the surface, to unlock the embedded potential of each project and client. This means engaging at a deep level to acquaint ourselves with the mission of each client so we may create with them a building that will become truly inspirational. The process requires rigorous research, questioning, evaluating, exploring, and testing.

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The Minguren Museum or “Arts Building” on Nakashima’s property (c. 1965) designed and built by George Nakashima featuring a plywood hyperbolic paraboloid roof.

I have a deep level of respect for Nakashima’s furniture and architecture, have studied his trademark live edge woodwork (even attempting some of my own pieces), and have visited the Monastery of Christ in the Desert near Abiquiu, New Mexico, which was designed by Nakashima. But my tour of his studio, workshop, and home of the Nakashima family (who carries out his legacy) brought me much closer to understanding the depth of inquiry and deftness of craft Nakashima conducted.

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George Nakashima, Father Aelred Wall, and Georgia O’Keefe at Monastery of Christ in the Desert.

The grounds include his home, studio, guest house, workshops, and barns holding a collection of black walnut from Pennsylvania and rare species of hardwoods acquired during sixty years of travelling the globe. To see and feel the chalk marks for butterfly splices on the rough sawn black walnut slabs confirmed the finely honed relationship he had with the trees he selected for his inventory.

Chalk marks reveal Nakashima’s as-yet unrealized plans for this piece of wood.

Chalk marks reveal Nakashima’s as-yet unrealized plans for this piece of wood.

Cutting logs entails a great responsibility, for we are dealing with a fallen majesty. There are no formulas, no guidelines, but only experience, instinct and a contact with the divine. —G. Nakashima

"Cutting logs entails a great responsibility, for we are dealing with a fallen majesty. There are no formulas, no guidelines, but only experience, instinct and a contact with the divine."
— G. Nakashima

From his writings it was clear that not only was he evaluating the structural characteristics of the wood—whether the tree grew on a hill, where the prevailing winds were from, and sun exposure—but the very spirit of the tree. Nakashima had strong spiritual beliefs and respected the spirit of nature. The potential in the tree was more than physical, the way a building can have a transformational effect on people beyond the pure function of the space.

Three stools at Nakashima’s workshop.

Three stools at Nakashima’s workshop.

"There must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man."
— G. Nakashima

Nakashima studies the many characteristics of the tree, the slab, and the grain, and he works to bring out the most beautiful and functional qualities that lie inherent within the specific specimen. He then elevates the wood to its highest use, celebrating the most elegant and beautiful figuring and grain. This brings great joy to the end user as the body engages the furniture and the eye explores the captured and displayed life of the tree.

Similarly, when engaging with each client and designing their project, I challenge myself with these questions: How can I walk in their shoes to understand their needs and mission? How can I extract the most essential elements of their mission and elevate their work and life through the physical manifestation of a building? And just as George Nakashima did through his craft, how can I unlock the embedded potential?

Me standing with two consecutive flitches of walnut cut through and through to express the dramatic grain patterns coveted by Nakashima.

Me standing with two consecutive flitches of walnut cut through and through to express the dramatic grain patterns coveted by Nakashima.

Enjoy learning more about George Nakashima’s life, legacy, and active workshop on his website: www.nakashimawoodworker.com

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