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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Coffee Table; exotic burl free-edge top on laurel Minguren base; 15 ˝ inches by 42 inches sold for $180,000. Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.
In the wood planks nearest the heart of a tree is its history, its legacy. Those were the planks furniture maker George Nakashima chose to build his benches, desks, tables, and chairs.

Hundreds-and-hundreds of planks, some hundreds of years old waited patiently outside his studio for the furniture maker’s next project. Nakashima knew there was “one” perfect use for each.

He would tell you his job was to discover that use and give the trees he loved so much one more chance.

From 1940 to 1990 Nakashima sculpted his furniture from trees he was convinced had “souls.” For his vision and expertise, Nakashima has been called the elder statesman of the American craft movement.

Like putting together an intricate puzzle, Nakashima searched for those interesting patterns in the grains. His work was characterized by organic, one-of-a-kind pieces using slabs of wood with their rough, free-edges left intact. Most furniture makers would trim off those jagged ends.

Not Nakashima. He wanted the natural line and grain to decide the final design. That was the magic Nakashima brought to wood carving. Nowadays, those uneven edges command serious money at auction. Japanese, Shaker and Arts and Crafts influences merged with Modernism in Nakashima’s designs.

But it was the trees themselves that inspired him. He made them live again.

"My kinship with the tree dates from the day I first stood among the great forest giants in the rain forest of Washington's Ho River valley," Nakashima said in his book “The Soul of a Tree."

“It is an art- and soul-satisfying adventure to walk the forests of the world, to commune with trees ... to bring this living material to the work bench, ultimately to give it a second life."

Nakashima was born of Japanese parents in 1905 in Spokane, Wash. After earning a Master's degree in architecture from M.I.T., Nakashima sold his car and bought a round-the-world tramp steamship ticket.

He worked in France, Japan, and India in the 1920s and ‘30s. He came back to America in 1940 and began teaching woodworking in Seattle.

Detained in an internment camp during WWII, and using salvaged wood, he trained under a master Japanese carpenter.

Nakashima learned to approach woodworking with patience and discipline. In every stage of construction, perfection was his goal.
Furniture with a clear reverence for wood and nature was the result.

In 1943, Nakashima resettled in New Hope, Pa., where he set up a studio, woodworking shop and employed some of the world’s finest craftsmen. Many of those craftsmen remain today.

Nakashima’s commissions included furniture for the home of former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nakashima's daughter, Mira, took over the studio after her father’s death in 1990. As head of the Nakashima Studio, she has experimented with new forms and continues in her father’s footsteps.

On Oct. 21 & 22, Dave Rago and John Sollo presented a 20th century modern auction in Lambertville, N.J. Featured in the sale was a selection of Nakashima furniture. Here are some current values.

George Nakashima

Headboard and Two Twin-Size Platform Beds; king-size walnut storage headboard with grass-cloth doors; headboards 36 inches by 80 inches by 12 inches; beds; 10 inches by 74 inches by 39 inches; $24,000.

Music Stand; buckeye burl top on walnut base; one of four known to exist; 49 inches by 25 inches; $45,000.

Desk; double-pedestal; seven drawers under single-board free-edge top; 28 ˝ inches by 77 inches; $45,000.

Bench; walnut back, burl seat; classic Nakashima form; 30 inches by 79 inches; $54,000.

Coffee Table; exotic burl free-edge top on laurel Minguren base; 15 ˝ inches by 42 inches; $180,000.

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