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!

Welcome the Newest Member of the Morikami Family

If you haven’t heard the news yet, we have a new Curator of Education! Shigeko Honda comes to us from the University of West Florida where she served as the Director of the Japan Center and the Japan House. We sat down with Shigeko-san for a quick Q&A so you can get to know her a little better. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: What did you do as the Director of the Japan Center and Japan House at the University of West Florida?

A: I supervised the Japanese language program, reviewed applications for the Florida-Japan Linkage Institute’s out-of-state-tuition exemption program, organized the annual U.S.-Japan Social Welfare symposium and Summer Semester in Japan program (in  collaboration with a partner college in Japan), organized Japanese cultural programs and events, handled displays at the Japan House, served as a liaison for our sister city (Gero) and sister state (Wakayama), managed volunteers, etc. 

Q: It sounds like you had a lot on your plate at UWF, but all of them seem to stem from your interest in fostering understanding between the U.S. and Japan. What initially made you want to spread your love of Japanese Culture in the U.S.?

A: I enjoy Japanese culture and thought that teaching and sharing it with American people would be a great way to keep learning about and enjoying it myself.

Q: We know you’re originally from Japan, but what city did you grow up in, and when did you come to the U.S.?

A: I was born and raised in a small town called Daigo in Ibaraki prefecture.  The town is surrounded by mountains and has four distinct and beautiful seasons.  I attended high school in Daigo and then went to Tokyo to attend college.  I came to the U.S. 33 years ago with my husband, who was originally from Pensacola.  I lived in Pensacola for the first 8 years, and then moved to Gulf Breeze where I lived for 25 years. I like to call Gulf Breeze and Pensacola my American hometowns. 

Q: Cuisine is one of our favorite things to talk about, so we just have to ask – what is your favorite American food?    

A: Steak.  Although I only eat steak every once in a while, I like a good steak grilled medium rare with a baked potato with sea salt.   

Q: Even though you’ve been in Florida for a while, you’ve only been with us a short time, so what has been your favorite part of working at Morikami so far?

A: Being able to be involved in such a significant event as the Kōgei Arts and Crafts exhibit that is sponsored by the Japanese government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Agency for Cultural Affairs as well as  the Consulate General of Japan in Miami has been great.  Not only do some of the objects in the exhibit come from the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, many of them are made by National Living Treasures. To be able to get involved at this scale in such a high level exhibit is truly a privilege.

Q: The Kōgei exhibit is certainly a big project, but are there any projects you are particularly excited to start working on here at Morikami after that?

A: Working with docents makes me very excited.  They are so knowledgeable and they’re wonderful people.  I would like to share with them what I know about Japanese culture and learn about Morikami from them.

Q: So, when you aren’t here learning from our top notch docents or helping others learn more about Japan what do you like to do in your free time?

A: After cleaning house, I like to arrange flowers and have a cup of tea and some quiet time.

Morikami Hems In Tokyo Fashion Exhibit This Fall

Harajuku, an area between Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo, has risen to the highest ranks of Japanese fashion. In the late 50s and early 60s the neighborhood was transformed from U.S. soldiers’ housing into a well-spring of youth culture (similar to the likes of Haight Ashbury in 1960’s San Francisco) that solidified into what many call the Harajuku-zoku, or the Harajuku tribe. The neighborhood was overtaken by photographers, models, artists, fashion designers and local youth, and has become the ultimate youth stomping ground.

Some of the most visible and popular movements to come out of Harajuku are Japan’s many street fashions. From Decora to Rock-a-billy, and everything in between, this style-hub has a place for every expression of style.

If you were one of the many Morikami fans to participate in our Hatsume 2013 Costume or Fashion Show Contests, you might have already seen our Street Fashion Facebook Album, but it’s a great visual introduction to some of these popular Japanese street styles:

Decora is characterized by an abundance of accessories.

Decora is characterized by an abundance of accessories on casual clothing. Color is also important, and you’ll see neons as well as pastels.

Lolita style is remniscent of Victorian Dolls, and uses this particular dress sihlouette for a number of "Loli" styles like Sweet Loli, Punk Loli, and Gothic Loli.

Lolita style is reminiscent of Victorian Dolls, and uses this particular dress silhouette for a number of “Loli” styles like Sweet Loli, Punk Loli, and Gothic Loli.

Visual Kei is based on the Glam Rock movement, and employs elements of androgyny.

Visual Kei is based on the Glam Rock movement, and employs elements of androgyny for both males and females.

Kodona is based on the same era as Lolita style except that it focuses on boys' wear. Kodona can be understood as boy style and is worn by both males and females.

Kodona is based on the same era as Lolita style except that it focuses on boys’ wear. Kodona can be understood as boy style and is worn by both males and females.

We’re excited to share that this autumn we’ll be showcasing these expressive styles in a photography exhibit titled “Contemporary Japanese Street Fashion.” If you’ve had the pleasure of snapping shots of the rock-a-billy clubs in Yoyogi Park, or Harajuku girls in Tokyo, we’re asking for submissions to feature in the exhibit. The deadline to submit photos is July 15th, and we’ll be choosing finalists shortly thereafter. Check our website for full submission details.

If you’re not photographically-inclined, but still want to enjoy the outrageous and beautiful fashions of Harajuku, you might be interested in attending the lecture by Professor Yuniya Kawamura of the Fashion Institute of Technology, in NYC. Professor Kawamura will join us Friday, November 1, at 7:15pm for a 45-minute talk on the art of Japanese street fashion, its many subcultures, and its influence in Japanese society and in the West.

Stay tuned for more details on the exhibit and lecture as the fall draws near!