Hallowed Trees: The Furniture of George Nakashima

Guest Blog by Susanna Brooks, Curator of Japanese Art

I’m essentially a druid. I believe that there are ghosts in trees, and in a very deep sense the tree is more God-like that man….There is a spirit in tree, bouncing up and down in the grain of a tree.

Opening this autumn at Morikami Museum is Japanese Design for the Senses: Beauty, Form, and Function, an exhibition that brings together a wide array of works that explore elements of form in Japanese design. Included in this exhibition are four furniture pieces made by George Nakashima (May 24, 1905 – June 15, 1990), a leading innovator of 20th century furniture design and a founder of the American craft movement.

At first glance, Nakashima’s simple forms reflect an austere, meditative sensibility that pays a heartfelt tribute to Shaker furniture design, a style that informs much of his work. Upon closer inspection, the wood exudes a kinetic energy that seemingly stems from the jaunty interplay of its spirited outlines and swirling, pulsating burls, tenderly paying homage to the tree trunks and roots from which it was cut.

Coinoid Bench; Dining Room Table and 6 chairs; Desk Walnut and hickory; walnut, rosewood, and hickory; walnut and metal 1983; 1984 Collection of Morikami Museum

Coinoid Bench; Dining Room Table and 6 chairs; Desk
Walnut and hickory; walnut, rosewood, and hickory; walnut and metal
1983; 1984
Collection of Morikami Museum

Coffee Table Maple and walnut 1984 Collection of Morikami Museum

Coffee Table
Maple and walnut
1984
Collection of Morikami Museum

An American of Japanese ancestry, Nakashima was born in Spokane, Washington, but grew up near the Olympic Peninsula. The lush landscape of his home state, the wondrous forests of his youth, undoubtedly inspired Nakashima’s profound appreciation for trees and his interest in studying forestry at the University of Washington, Seattle.

During his coursework at the university, Nakashima became interested in structural forms and changed his major to architecture, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1929. The following year, he pursued his master’s degree in architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), after which he traveled to France and earned a diploma at the École Américaine des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Nakashima spent a few years traversing the globe on a spiritual quest, making his way to an ashram in India, where he lived for two years as a monk before making his way to Japan.

In Japan, Nakashima met and worked with American architects Antonin Raymond (1888 – 1976) and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959). Raymond had worked as Wright’s chief assistant during the construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. By way of Raymond’s introduction, Nakashima worked for Wright before moving on to become a lead project manager for Raymond’s firm. During his time in Japan, Nakashima studied traditional Japanese carpentry and furniture making. It was also in Japan that he met and married Marion Okajima (1912 – 2004), an American of Japanese ancestry who was teaching English at a private school.

Nakashima appreciated and related aesthetically to Raymond’s architectural approach, a style which married traditional Japanese design elements with innovative American materials and modes of construction. In 1935, Nakashima’s former guru in India, the distinguished yogi Sri Aurobindo, afforded Raymond the opportunity to bid on a major building project. When Raymond’s firm was selected to construct a dormitory at Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry, Nakashima was made the lead designer/project manager. Completed in 1945, the ashram was named Golconde, after the nearby diamond mines. Golconde is the first building in India to use cast-in-place concrete, and among the earliest examples of sustainable modern architecture. The dormitory’s interior, a harmonious blend of wood, stone, and concrete, serves as a personal homage to Nakashima’s innate sensibility toward wood and his skillfulness as an architect, designer, and wood craftsman.

Photos of Golconde courtesy of American Institute of Architects (AIA) (http://www.aia.org/aiaucmp/groups/ek_public/documents/pdf/aiap080052.pdf )

During the time that Nakashima worked on the project, he reconnected to his spiritual practice and became a dedicated disciple of the ashram. The personal connection that he formed with the ashram pervaded every aspect of his work. The space and the materials used in its construction took on a deeper, more profound meaning. This intuitive approach would later come to inform Nakashima’s relationship with wood and his philosophy as a furniture designer/maker. Amid rising political tensions abroad, Nakashima and his wife returned to Seattle in 1939, and set up a studio and workshop, where Nakashima designed furniture and taught woodworking.

On February 19, 1942, just over two months after the United States declared war on Japan, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which called for the internment of all people of Japanese ancestry. From 1942 to 1946, between 110,000 to 120,000 citizens were forced to leave their homes and relocated to internment camps. Nakashima, Marion, and their small daughter, Mira, were interned at camp Minidoka in Idaho.

At Minidoka, Nakashima met and worked with Gentaro Hikogawa, a skilled wood craftsman. Under Hikogawa’s tutelage, Nakashima mastered the use of traditional Japanese tools and joinery techniques and developed his signature style: large-scale pieces composed of multiple, smooth-finished slabs of wood joined together with butterfly joints.

In 1943, after a lengthy petition process, Antonin Raymond was granted permission by the government to sponsor the Nakashima’s at his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was at Raymond’s farm, which doubled as a studio, that Nakashima explored the organic expressiveness of wood. For his pieces, he selected boards with natural knots, burls and figured grain. With Raymond’s guidance, Nakashima established his own studio and workshop, and his career as a furniture designer soared. He received commissions to design furniture for such high-end retailers as Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, as well as for wealthy residential clients.

Photo of Nakashima and his family courtesy of Global Lighting  (http://www.globallighting.com/nakashima-woodworkers-put-their-newest-designs-on-display/)

Photo of Nakashima and his family courtesy of Global Lighting

Among Nakashima’s private clientele was Nelson Rockefeller. In 1973, Rockefeller commissioned Nakashima to make a few hundred pieces of furniture for his home in New York. This was a watershed moment for the George Nakashima name, as it quickly became synonymous with the best 20th century American furniture designers. The Rockefeller pieces exemplified the elements that made up Nakashima’s signature style: a harmonious blend of Japanese simplicity and functionality combined with the austere minimalism that is the hallmark of Shaker furniture design and the linear elegance of American Windsor style. His daughter, Mira, worked alongside him in the studio.

courtesy of Mira Nakashima-Yarnall (http://blog.modernest.com/2010/03/20/like-father-like-daughter-mira-nakashima-carries-on-her-fathers-legacy/ )

Photo courtesy of Mira Nakashima-Yarnall

George and Mira Nakashima in studio

Photo courtesy of George Nakashima Studio

In 1983, Morikami Museum commissioned Nakashima to build the pieces that appear in the current exhibition. Mira assisted her father with the process.  On view in the gallery are letters of the correspondence between Morikami Museum and the Nakashimas. The letters are accompanied by several detailed drawings of the pieces he planned to create for the Museum.

Since her father’s death in 1990, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall has carried on the Nakashima legacy, running the George Nakashima Studio in New Hope and preserving the integrity of her father’s original designs. In 2008, Nakashima’s studio and workshop was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Throughout the years that George Nakashima enjoyed his fame and success, much of it owed to his mentor and friend Antonin Raymond, he never forgot the teachings of Gentaro Hikogawa. In fact, and ironically, Nakashima credited much of his success as a furniture maker to the techniques he learned while confined at the interment camp. George maintained that the unhurried pace of daily life there slowed him down enough to reacquaint himself with the traditional Japanese tools and joinery techniques that he had been exposed to as a young man. He also credited Hikogawa for teaching him to approach his work with focus, discipline, and patience, and for pushing him to strive for perfection at every stage of construction.

In the autumn years of his life, George Nakashima shared the beliefs that shaped his life’s work:

There’s a possibility of interrupting the sequence of life and death by doing something with a tree that will continue on. Trees, like all living objects, if they’re not utilized in a good way, will go back to dust…. I feel that every piece of wood has an exact usage, and finding this exact usage becomes my job.  And I have to feel that it [the tree] has to be utilized to its utmost potential, otherwise it’s a let down for both myself and the tree. There is a partnership there that’s very important”

Quotes courtesy of the George Nakashima Studio (http://www.nakashimawoodworker.com/philosophy/ )

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Arts & Crafts Takes on a Whole New Meaning in Our Newest Exhibit

Fall is a busy time at Morikami. From gearing up for Lantern Fest to preparing for the new season of educational programs there are lots of changes happening during the “cooler” months coming up. One of those changes is happening as we speak – our galleries are being transformed from a haven for some awe-inspiring Kokeshi dolls, into a space for outrageous fashion and amazing works of Kōgei  art.

You probably already know a little about our upcoming Japanese Street Fashion exhibit, but you may be unfamiliar with Kōgei , as it is sometimes difficult to explain exactly what it is to our non-Japanese  followers. Never fear – we’re here to help.

What is Kōgei ?

Kōgei  is an art that couples form and function, bringing beauty to everyday objects. As one Japan Times article explains it “Kōgei has often been translated into English as ‘crafts,’ and such works don’t fit exactly into the category of fine arts in the West. Against this backdrop, they have been perceived as occupying a lower station than “art.”But in Japan they form a class of their own, as an applied art, with some masters honored by the government as living national treasures. Such handicrafts include ceramics, fine “urushi” lacquer designs, silk fabrics and more.”

In short Kōgei  artists are craftsmen of the highest level who create works of art that also happen to be very common objects such as tea bowls or lacquer ware.

What will the exhibit be like?

This exhibit, Contemporary Kōgei Styles in Japan,  brings together approximately 90 Kōgei-style artworks including ceramics, textiles, dolls, and works of metal, lacquer, wood, bamboo, and glass created by over 40 of Japan’s most influential and leading Kōgei artists of international renown. The exhibit is organized by Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, Ministry of  Foreign Affairs, Consulate General of Japan in Miami and Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens with special collaboration from the Tokyo National Museum of Modern Art, All Nippon Airways Co., LTD., and Stella M. Holmes. We’re also proud to announce that after careful consideration, the Japanese government chose us as the only museum in the country to host this exhibit, so you won’t get to see these pieces anywhere else in the U.S.

These works are by very influential artists including some living national treasures. The exhibit runs from October 8, 2013 through February 18, 2014 and some of the objects will be rotated out for new ones half way through, so you’ll have something new to see each time you visit us.  The video below gives a wonderful overview of the art form and exhibit from the perspective of some of the featured artists as well as some of the exhibit’s organizers.

What’s a Living National Treasure?

Based on Japan’s 1950 Law for Protection of Cultural Properties, some individuals, small groups and preservation groups can be designated Living National Treasures. This mark of distinction means the individual or group has reached mastery in a certain area including drama, music, art, and other intangible cultural artifacts of high value in terms of Japanese history or art.  Today there are over 100 men and women on the list of Living National Treasures in the category of crafts. Though there is no real equivalent to this distinction in our culture, you might compare it to MacArthur Genius Grant recipients or Nobel Prize winners, though these designees may be recognized in a diverse range of fields and Japan’s Living National Treasures are recognized for their skill and commitment in keeping traditional Japanese cultural aspects alive and thriving.

Will I be able to hear from any of the artists?

We’re glad you asked – yes!  Not only will you be able to view work from some of these Living National Treasures, you’ll also be able to hear from one, as well as another featured artist. We’ll be hosting a lecture with speakers Murose Kazumi and Men’ya Shōho on October 9, 2013. You’ll find details and ticket information here.

We hope you’ll join us for this exciting opportunity to see and hear from some of Japan’s top Kōgei artists!

Get More Morikami – Join the Membership Family!

Though summer’s considered “slow season” at Morikami, with the kids out of school and vacations on the horizon, we know this is one of the best times for our guests to visit. So, why not join the Morikami family and get more out of each visit? Not only do members enjoy free admission every day, each membership level offers exclusive benefits that allow you to curate your own Morikami experience. And, as we barrel toward our season kick-off, there are even more reasons to join! Visit our membership page for full details, or read on for some of our favorite membership perks.

Annual memberships range from $40 for students all the way up to $1500 for our most exclusive Wisdom Ring level. No matter your level of membership, enjoy special invitations to members-only events, discounts in the Cornell Café, Museum Store and at nearby Way Beyond Bagels, as well as free daily admission and free and fast track entrance to festivals (including Lantern Festival 2013 as well as Oshogatsu and Hatsume 2014) and Sushi & Stroll Summer Walks. Beginning at our Dual membership level, you can double your Morikami fun with matching benefits for a second adult in addition to children or grandchildren.  All members also receive discounts on our educational programs like lectures, classes and workshops.

If you’re looking for the most Morikami has to offer, we suggest exploring our Samurai and Wisdom Ring levels. Here’s an overview of their exclusive benefits:

Samurai ($550)

At our second highest level of membership, Samurai members enjoy free daily admission for four guests, as well as 10% off museum facility rentals and exclusive access to the Morikami Book Club that meets monthly at the museum to discuss Japanese themed or Japanese authored works.

Wisdom Ring ($1500)

The Wisdom Ring is our highest level membership, and offers the unique opportunity to be intimately involved in the museum’s art acquisition. A third of each member’s annual subscription dollars directly support purchases for Morikami’s permanent collection, and once a year, Wisdom Ring members are invited to vote on which pieces they’d like to see the museum acquire. Morikami curators reveal these newly purchased pieces at the annual Wisdom Ring Recognition dinner.

Above and beyond any other membership level, Wisdom Ring members enjoy free daily admission for up to 10 guests, invitations to Wisdom Ring members-only events, lectures and previews. Past events include dinners at South Florida’s best Japanese restaurants, a “Girls’ Night Out” cooking class, and special Shabu Shabu dinner with Miami-based celebrity chef Makoto Okuwa. Along with the Samurai level membership, Wisdom Ring members are also invited to participate in the Morikami Book Club.

There’s a membership level for everyone; whether you’re a student, an educator or invested community member, we invite you to find your place in the Morikami family.

It’s Season, Baby!

Yesterday, at the Morikami Museum, it was bustling.

Mid-day on a Tuesday, people were mingling in the Museum Store, checking out the Jun Kaneko exhibit with its massive pieces, curiously poking around the library and meandering through the gardens.

But I really knew it was cooking — literally — by the line at the Cornell Cafe. By 1:30 p.m., there was a wait for sushi, iced green tea and teriyaki anything.

One of the longtime staffers explained the crowds to me in three words, “It’s season, baby!” The temperatures were leveling off to a moderate 70-degree range, the clouds were high, the sun bright and the humidity was low. If there was a snowbird, out of town guest or visiting family member, it felt like they all chose to stop by the Morikami that day.

With our unseasonable cold, cold snap over, we’ve put away our leather jackets and boots and returned to our cotton scarves and flip-flops. January, February, March and April are when the museum pops with people. They are there for lectures, exhibits, classes, festivals… Next up, Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) and Hatsume (March 20-21)!

Just sitting in the lobby, watching them come and go, it’s really cool to see so many people taking in the beauty of the place. It’s season, baby; welcome, everyone!

It's Season at the Morikami, which means lots of visitors!

Welcome to More Morikami

The Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens has been a part of my life for more than nine years, so it’s always a delight to read and see how people are still discovering it.

Every time I visit, I see or eat or experience something new. Through this blog, I hope to share some of that experience with others who love Japan, South Florida, Delray Beach, culture, art, music, food, education, shopping, film and people — just a few of the things that make The Morikami so fantastic.

If you need a reason to visit, I give you Ronin Taiko.

At 7 p.m. Oct. 8 and 9, The Morikami will kick off its 2009-2010 cultural season with two concerts that you feel  in your chest. Taiko drumming dates back more than 2,600 years. Used to intimidate enemies before a war and celebrate at religious ceremonies, taiko is simply “cool.”  Playing the big drums is a combination of raw power, aerobic dance, choreography and overwhelmingly, coordinated sound.

Every festival The Morikami holds is packed with people coming just for the taiko. I can’t think of a better way to get the party started.

To buy tickets online, visit www.morikami.org.

Ronin Taiko Kicks off The Morikami's 2009-2010 season Oct. 8 and 9.

Ronin Taiko Kicks off The Morikami's 2009-2010 season Oct. 8 and 9.