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DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Furniture designer George Nakashima (1905–1990) once called himself the first hippie. His anti-establishment thinking took form as rebellion against what he saw as the dehumanization of mass production. Some of his iconic pieces, as well as his influence, can be seen in Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture at the Michener, at the art museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The exhibition is curated by Nakashima’s daughter, Mira Nakashima, who has run Nakashima Studios since her father’s death in 1990.
Trained as an architect at Harvard and MIT, George Nakashima worked in India and Japan but became disillusioned with the practice when observing, on a Frank Lloyd Wright building under construction, how little control an architect retains. As a woodworker he could have complete mastery over the product. Beginning in his boyhood in the forests of the Pacific Northwest (he was born in Spokane), he listened to the spirit of the wood and let it guide him.
Nakashima published his ideas in the book The Soul of a Tree in 1981. “The hours spent by the true craftsman in bringing out the grain, which has long been imprisoned in the trunk of the tree, are themselves an act of creation,” he wrote.
His daughter also trained as an architect, at Harvard and at Waseda University in Tokyo, and has worked in her father’s shop since 1970. In a video mounted on the website of Nakashima Woodworkers, she recounts how her father fired her time and again for her independent thinking. Although she took an assertiveness training course to deal with him, she felt that working as her father’s assistant, emulating his meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, was a good way to develop humility.
When Mira, born in 1942, was an infant, she and her parents were forced to live behind barbed wire in a “relocation center” in Idaho during World War II. Antonin Raymond, a Wright disciple and the architect Nakashima had worked for in Japan, sponsored the Nakashima family to be released from the camp and brought to a chicken farm in bucolic Bucks County, Pennsylvania, seat of the New Hope Arts Colony. Nakashima bartered to acquire the property, where the studio continues to this day. Raymond and his wife, Noemi, introduced Nakashima, Harry Bertoia, and Isamu Noguchi to Hans and Florence Knoll, pioneers of modern office furniture and interior design and founders of the company that bears their name, where the artists became arbiters of 20th-century design, inspiring a generation of woodworkers.
When Nakashima died, there was a backlog of orders for Mira to fulfill. She has run the shop, listed on the National Register of Historic Places (studio tours are available through the Michener), ever since. A year ago she set an auction price world record for a walnut dining table and set of eight “Conoid” chairs (a signature Nakashima model) fetching $150,000 at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia, surpassing its record of $80,000.
Mira also believes in allowing the wood to speak. Her Keisho collection — which translates from Japanese to continuance or succession — uses the same visual language that Nakashima designs are known for, but with a more delicate, contemporary sensibility.
At last, she can fulfill her own vision. In Nakashima Looks, she has included some important pieces of her own along with works by notables in the studio craft movement in southeastern Pennsylvania, including: Wharton Esherick, Isamu Noguchi, Harry Bertoia, Phillip Lloyd Powell, Paul Evans, Noémi Raymond (wife of Antonin, who sponsored the Nakashimas), both generations of Nakashimas, and others.
Esherick, known as the founder of the American Studio Furniture movement, studied painting at the University of the Arts and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, but dropped out six weeks before graduation because he felt he was being taught to imitate the work of others. He worked his way through ceramics, woodblock printing, illustration, frame making, and designing posters and theater sets before finding his voice as a sculptor of furniture. His “Sheet Music Stand” celebrates the functional object as a free-standing piece. The walnut “Library Ladder” is similar to a staircase he built in his Paoli studio.
It’s a close-knit group: Esherick’s studio is also on the National Register, and both Esherick and Nakashima sourced wood locally. Mira continues to use some of the wood her father milled, and self-taught furniture designer Phillip Powell, too, experimented with Nakashima’s leftover wood.
Inspired by Esherick, Powell began crafting furniture as a teenager. Before opening a shop in New Hope, he refurbished antiques for a living. After World War II he sold Knoll and Herman Miller designs, as well as Noguchi’s “Akari Lamps” (one is on view here). He teamed up with metal worker Paul Evans in 1955, opening a showroom of their collaborative screens, tables, and cabinets, but preferred to work according to his own schedule. He would spend half the year traveling the world, gaining inspiration and collecting treasures. “I’m an artist working with furniture that has sculptural qualities,” he is quoted as saying in a listing in the Bucks County artist database. Here, his upholstered sofa with carved wooden sides illustrates his technique of carving texture into the surface of the wood.
In the same seating nook is Paul Evans’s “Verdigris Chair,” offering a glimpse of his metal work. More of his outstanding collage-like work can be seen nearby in the museum’s permanent collection.
Bertoia moved to Pennsylvania in 1950 to work with the Knolls. He and Nakashima become close friends, sharing family gatherings and philosophical conversations and exchanging work. Bertoia’s hand-crafted wire mesh forms, one of which is shown here, were mass-produced as seating by Knoll since the 1950s, giving him the financial means to devote himself to sculpture.
Perhaps the most exciting work in the exhibition is Mira’s “Tsuitate Sofa,” a commission for a show at Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery, completed in 2018. “Tsuitate” is a Japanese term for a room divider. While we can still see some of her father’s signature elements — the raw edges of wood, the butterfly joinery, the refined wood at the base — this sofa is pure Mira, with blue upholstery and tendrils of upturned roots at the seatback. It is like an inverted version of her father’s “Conoid Bench,” exhibited nearby.
The love between father and daughter is apparent in three “Mira Chairs” Nakashima designed for his daughter when she was 10 years old. One looks suitably sized for a toddler, while the other two are graduated up in size, each with a foot rest for short legs.
While visiting, don’t miss the Nakashima Memorial Room, installed in the museum in 1993, or Powell’s nearby fireplace surround and 12-feet-tall, carved wooden door from his hand-built cylindrical New Hope studio.
Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture at the Michener continues at the Michener Art Museum (138 S. Pine Street, Doylestown, Pennsylvania) through July 7. The exhibition is curated by Mira Nakashima.