George Nakashima is widely considered one of the three fathers of modern American woodworking, along with Sam Maloof and Wharton Esherick. Whereas Maloof and Esherick focused to a greater extend on sculpting their forms by hand, George Nakashima took an approach that was in many ways more architectural, natural, and accepting of (some) modern tools. Often making nods to his Japanese-American upbringing in his work, Nakashima had a profoundly spiritual relationship with the work he produced and the material that was used in its construction.
Born in Spokane Washington to Japanese Immigrants, Nakashima went to study architecture at the University of Washington, where he received his B.Arch. Afterwards, he pursued graduate work in architecture at MIT, where he produced meticulous drawings by hand, still on display today at the Nakashima studio. Interested in travel and the work of Le Corbusier, Nakashima bought an around-the-world ticket on a steamship, eventually ending up in Japan to work with Antonin Raymond, a well known protege of Frank Lloyd Wright. This led him to work in India on one of Raymond's projects, overseeing the construction of an Ashram dormitory, while simultaneously immersing himself in spiritual teachings. As World War II came about, Nakashima returned to the US and was soon after placed in an internment camp in Idaho with his newly-wedded wife Marion and daughter Mira. It was at this internment camp where Nakashima met a master carpenter, who he was able to apprentice under and learn the skills of making furniture by hand.
With sponsorship from Antonin Raymond, Nakashima was able to leave the internment camps with his family and move to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where Raymond had a farm and office. Nakashima soon worked in exchange for land and built a small wood shop to work in and eventually a small place to live. Florence and Hans Knoll were building their furniture company and asked Nakashima to design a group of pieces for them in the mid 1940s. He designed the Straight chair (a variation on the Windsor chair), Captain's chair, two coffee tables, and approximately two dining tables. Though some of the production was outsourced, work was also being produced by Nakashima for Knoll. The royalties from these pieces allowed Nakashima to finally build a more robust shop and start making private commissions at an incrementally larger scale. By the late 1940's, Nakashima was producing studio pieces of his own and building a line that would only be produced in-house. In the late 1950s, George was also approached by the Widdicomb-Mueller company to produce the origins line, which used many of the stylistic queues that Nakashima was known for, though the line was produced by Widdicomb in Grand Rapids and the case goods (cabinets) were made with veneers, as opposed to solid hardwoods. Mira Nakashima has noted that the Widdicomb pieces showcase some of George's experimental and early use of exceptionally figured and burled woods, which would later become a noteworthy part of his work late in life.
Following the Origins line and Knoll pieces, George worked exclusively from the New Hope, Pennsylvania studio and had a small team of woodworkers crafting each piece of furniture. Of the studio chairs, the conoid and grass seated chairs have both become highly coveted design icons. Within the realm of tables, George was one of the first to explore free edges on wooden slabs. By using free edges and butterfly wood joints as functional and beautiful details, he felt that he could allow the tree to live a new life. By using simple architectural bases, George would allow the slabs to speak on their own without interruption. Early in his studio work, using uniquely formed or split slabs was a practical matter, as those boards were far less expensive to purchase and less desirable. As his career matured, it was clear that slabs with unique shapes and intriguing figure were desired by his clients. By the end of his life, George was well known in the design community with notable commissions from the Rockefeller's (1973) and other noteworthy names. He amassed a tremendous collection of rare woods and would use species such as English oak burl or Persian walnut in constructing commissioned pieces. George passed away in 1990, leaving the legacy to Mira Nakashima, a trained architect and woodworker, who had worked under him for decades prior. Mira continues to produce exceptional works at the Nakashima Studio.