Why George Nakashima is the father of modern American woodworking

By Nico Haven, Thomas Hart, and David Rosenwasser


"George’s approach was that of an Integral Yogi: not only did he believe that the inherent beauty of natural materials like wood should be studied, understood, and respected, but that the product should retain such materials’ marks of individuality, as well as those of the craftsperson who brings it into being.”

- George Nakashima Woodworkers

In an era that was defined by mass production of reproducible designs—not just in furniture, but in cars, homes, everyday products, and more—George Nakashima stands out as a designer who went against the grain.

Nakashima’s design philosophy was a reaction against this “modern” approach, and he cultivated a spiritual connection both to his designs and to the materials he used to produce them. Many of his pieces are one-of-a-kind treasures that are highly collectible and extremely valuable because of his care and dedication to beauty.

Nakashima saw his designs as living organisms

George Nakashima didn’t believe that he was just producing furniture. He recognized that the wood he worked with had been alive and had a history when it was a tree, and he wanted to respect and honor that life-spirit in his finished pieces.

Nakashima only worked with solid wood in his studio's work, “the body through which we search for a tree’s soul.”

Nakashima prioritized craftsmanship

Nakashima viewed his role in the process as bringing new life to the wood by working with it and turning it into a new form.

He strove to lovingly and worshipfully tell each piece of wood’s story by expressing its inherent beauty. He worked with its grain and shape and condition to find the form that most appropriately fit that piece of wood and expressed its unique character and history.

To do this, Nakashima believed, required a true craftsperson, as a designer must be connected to their own spirit in order to connect with the materials’ spirit and work with it to produce a true one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

He believed it took a lifetime to master his craft, and that that process was inherently spiritual as much as it was technical.

George Nakashima at work (image via the Nakashima Woodworkers Studio)
George Nakashima at work (image via the George Nakashima Woodworkers Studio)

"When trees mature, it is fair and moral that they are cut for man’s use, as they would soon decay and return to the earth. Trees have a yearning to live again, perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth.”

- George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree (1981)

Nakashima was a forerunner of the circular economy

Out of that reverential respect for the material with which he worked, Nakashima saw value in and used every part of a tree. The Nakashima studio “treasure[s] the discards from land-clearing and other instances of tree removal, and we repurpose what many regard as debris into the beautiful planks of timber from which we craft our furniture.”

In this way, Nakashima’s design philosophy is aligned with the three principles of the circular economy : “eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature.”

Nakashima revolutionized the woodworking techniques in the 20th century

While Nakashima reinvigorated the spiritual connection designers should have with their materials, he also revolutionized the technical aspects of woodworking in a way that have influenced furniture design in the 20th and 21st centuries.

George Nakashima was originally an architect and had collaborated with such esteemed architects as Antonin Raymond and Frank Lloyd Wright.

However, in 1940, upon his return to the U.S. after a decade abroad, he was interned at Camp Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho along with others of Japanese ancestry. It was in the camp that he met and apprenticed under master carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa, who taught Nakashima traditional Japanese woodworking techniques and tools.

This background and breadth of technical training influenced how Nakashima approached his craft. Some defining characteristics of Nakashima’s work include butterfly joints used to stabilize two pieces of wood, using high-quality and exotic species, deploying a simple architectural base, and showcasing a pure expression of the wood especially through the figured parts of the exposed wood grain and the natural free edges.

George Nakashima (image via the Nakashima Foundation for Peace)
George Nakashima (image via the Nakashima Foundation for Peace)

George Nakashima's Iconic Designs

N19 Straight Chair (for Knoll) (1946)

Nakashima worked with Knoll in the mid 1940s to create the Splay Leg Table and this N19 Straight Chair, which was his modern interpretation of the classic Windsor chair.

On these pieces, he intentionally used low-sheen finishes to amplify the natural grain patterns of the wood.

The N19 Straight Chair acts as a fitting and somewhat formally conservative precursor to many of the later chair works that we consider iconic from Nakashima. In this N19, he used solid wood construction with a modernized and slightly more architectural iteration of the Windsor chair. The chair reads as evolution, not revolution

It is thought that the earliest examples were made by Nakashima himself or nearby woodworkers in and around New Hope, whereas later examples were more mass manufactured and have slightly different detailing. The early work for Knoll also represents some of Nakashima's earliest furniture design work in general. 

George Nakashima N19 Straight Chairs (1949) (image via Rarify)
George Nakashima N19 Straight Chairs (1949) (image via Rarify)
George Nakashima   Single Pedestal Desk (1956) (image via Rarify)
George Nakashima Single Pedestal Desk (1956) (image via Rarify)

Single Pedestal Desk (1956)

This desk highlights many of the characteristics of Nakashima’s early works, when the materials and design moves he used were still quite simple.

The inverted-V leg style and cruciform base are examples of Nakashima’s characteristic use of simple architectural bases in his work.

The top is made from eight pieces of walnut glued together in what’s called a “glued-up top.” While not a solid piece of wood like he preferred in his later work, there is still a very distinct and beautiful natural grain pattern.

Along the drawers is a signature detail—a quadrangle impression—to allow a hidden pull from below each drawer rather than have knobs or handles that would protrude from the sleek face.

Conoid Cushion Chair (1961)

The Conoid Cushion Chair is what Rarify’s co-founder David calls the “daddy” of Nakashima chairs because they were expensive to make, so they’re rarer and more valuable collectibles when you do find one.

This iconic design shows how Nakashima began to experiment in the mid-1950s, as it is focused less on the natural beauty of the wood because most of the chair is covered in an upholstered cushion.

That cushion rests upon a cantilever structure of black walnut, which contrasts nicely against the light, hand-shaved hickory spindles on the back of the chair. The spindles become a recurring motif Nakashima would use in the furniture he designed throughout the rest of his career. 

Widdicomb Origins Side End Table (1958)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, George Nakashima created the “Origin Group” of 60 furniture pieces for the Widdicomb Furniture Company. The series has been called “one of the most stimulating and thoughtful concepts of furniture design ever to be presented.”

This series marked when Nakashima began using exotic species of wood, such as the East Indian laurel in this example of a side or end table.

Other characteristics of the “Origin Group” series include highly visible joinery such as hand-shaved spindles that still show the marks from the tools, exquisitely figured and burled wood grains, dovetails on the corner of dining tables and pegged tenon joints, which use an ancient practice dating back at least 7,000 years.

George Nakashima for Widdicomb Origins Side End Table East Indian Laurel Walnut (image via D Rose Mod)
George Nakashima for Widdicomb Origins Side End Table East Indian Laurel Walnut (image via D Rose Mod)
George Nakashima   Slatted Settee (1960s) (image via Rarify)
George Nakashima Slatted Settee (1960s) (image via Rarify)

Slatted Settee (1950)

This fabulous settee from the mid-1960s extends a similar design language used later in pieces like the Conoid Cushion Chair, where an upholstered cushion sits against an open-back design of solid walnut.

In this case, the back design is constructed from long vertical slats rather than the hand-shaved spindles seen on the later piece. As with the design of many Nakashima pieces, this settee was intended to be positioned in a way that the back would be visible, even with a cushion on the back. 

Minguren I Side Table (C. 1965)

Initially developed to celebrate several shows in Japan, the Minguren I series of designs is often an excellent example of Nakashima’s use of burled wood—an abnormal growth in any part of a tree that creates a beautiful and visually textured grain pattern. He had been obsessed with figured woods and burls for many years, but didn’t have the access or resources available to use them until later in his career, when he became more recognized.

The Minguren I series also typically includes the free edges that really showcase the beautiful grain and burl of the wood top. Rather than cutting the wood into straight, right-angled edges or a circle, Nakashima allowed the wood to maintain its natural curvature and texture, which further emphasizes the unique aspects that make each piece a one-of-a-kind collectible.

The pieces also have a very recognizable base, with a single vertical slab intersected with a perpendicular foot (typically black walnut) to create a profile that, in its simplicity, accentuates the beautiful and less ordered details of the wood top.

Greenrock Ottoman(1973)

Even though he was famous as one of the greatest woodworkers of the 20th century, George Nakashima never strayed too far from his academic training and early career in architecture.

This ottoman, designed towards the end of his career, was one of the last pieces he designed; he spent more time from the mid-1970s until his death in 1990 collecting natural and beautiful wood slabs from around the world—many of which have been used by his daughter, Mira, an accomplished woodworker and designer in her own right, as well as the others at the Nakashima Woodworkers Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

The ottoman is designed and built like a building, employing and adapting many architectonic concepts. The simple yet structural base is mounted on a pedestal of wood with a small cushion attached to it, and the base intersects with the pedestal in beautiful yet structural ways. The joinery connecting the pieces of the base are elegantly detailed as well.

George Nakashima’s career can be evaluated in this way as a culmination of experimentation and variations upon a steadfast design philosophy and a commitment to perfection at every stage of the process.

George Nakashima Greenrock Ottoman / Stool in Black Walnut (image via D Rose Mod)
George Nakashima Woodworker Greenrock Ottoman / Stool in Black Walnut (image via D Rose Mod)
George Nakashima among his collected wood slabs (image via Getty Images)
George Nakashima among his collected wood slabs (image via Getty Images)

George Nakashima's One-of-a-Kind Legacy

Because of his impressive catalog of one-of-a-kind designs and his emphasis on craftsmanship, George Nakashima is one of the designers we’ve respected and looked up to at Rarify for a long time. We’re happy to include his work, along with his daughter Mira's, in our curated collection.

Rarify is an evolving collection of iconic, authentic-only furniture by history's most visionary designers. We curate collections of timeless classics and rare, authenticated vintage furniture pieces, as well as the collectible classics of the future.