G eorge Nakashima lived on the edge – literally. His home and studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania, stand at the precipice of a rocky moraine, where, as he wrote in his manifesto-memoir The Soul of a Tree, “Huge boulders, deposited long ago by glaciers, lie strewn about.” Creeks run through this landscape, sluicing through the terrain.
Inside the workshop, too – still going strong today, under the leadership of his daughter Mira – edges are everywhere. They are in the tools, the fine steel of a sharpened Japanese chisel or a power-saw blade. They are there in his symmetrical book matched compositions, in which flat boards are perfectly fitted together. And of course they are there, in glorious profusion, in his signature “free-edge” designs, with their quasi-fractal, quintessentially organic shapes.
These marvelously complex contours are found, not made; Nakashima revealed them by sawing through a burl or root structure, at just the right angle. “As in cutting a diamond, the judgments must be precise and exact,” he is quoted as saying in Michael A. Stone’s Contemporary American Woodworkers. “If a figure is cut properly, the beauty locked in the tree will gradually emerge. If cut improperly, most is lost.”
It’s an apt metaphor. For Nakashima did indeed set these gemlike pieces of wood as a jeweler might, mounting them on suitably restrained armatures. Sitting at one of these tables, you may well feel as if you are beholding a gigantic geode or baroque pearl; or, conversely, overlooking a lake or a mountain range, or even a sprawling galaxy. It’s an idea famously communicated in Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten (1977): that nature repeats itself at different scales, from the largest to the smallest, playing continual variations on itself in a telescopic fugue. Nakashima’s free-edge furniture manifests that awe-inspiring sublimity at our own size, humanizing it, and bringing it into the domain of everyday life.
“As in cutting a diamond, the judgments must be precise and exact. If a figure is cut properly, the beauty locked in the tree will gradually emerge. If cut improperly, most is lost.”
The present example, offered in Important Design on 6 December, dates to 1983, a significant moment in Nakashima’s career. This was two years after the publication of The Soul of a Tree, which had consolidated his reputation as America’s most spiritually attuned furniture designer – an equal and opposite force to his younger peer Wendell Castle, who imposed his will on wood, rather than allowing it to guide him. 1983 was also the year that Nakashima conceived the idea for his Peace Altars, his most important late works. These were initially inspired, as was so often the case for him, by a singular piece of wood: a huge, figured slab of Claro black walnut, fully 14 feet in length. As Wilson Dillar recounts in a 1985 essay, it occurred to Nakashima that “such a magnificent tree – such beautiful wood – could be used to create a conference table where the people around it are discussing world peace.” This movingly idealistic project would first be realized at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in 1986; subsequent altars of comparable scale would ultimately find homes in India and Russia.
It was just at this generative moment that Nakashima made the table offered here – also from California timber, a spectacular root structure of redwood. (It is a remnant from the tragic clear-cutting of the great forests north of the Bay Area, decades earlier; the great stumps left from this destructive campaign were also a resource exploited by the legendary J. B. Blunk.) Originally purchased by David Nash, former chairman of Christie’s Americas, the table, like Nakashima’s late Peace Altars, found its way abroad to a highly resonant context.
Since 1996, it has been on loan to the George Nakashima Memorial Museum, located in a town called Takamatsu, in Kagawa prefecture, southern Japan. This was a significant place in Nakashima’s life and career: he had first visited in 1964, and had begun collaborating with a newly formed artisan collective there called Sanuki Minguren, reports Seong A. Kim Lee in the Korean Journal of Japanology. (The title that Nakashima often applied to his free-edge tables, Minguren, referring to vernacular craft, originated through this connection.) This evolved into a working partnership with the furniture maker Shinichi Nagami, who executed works to Nakashima’s design for the Asian market.
The Memorial Museum, founded by Nagami in collaboration with Nakashima’s family in 1996, is the largest public collection of his work in Japan. The long association of the present table with that setting, and its creation at the very height of Nakashima’s career and reputation, render it a monument not only in the physical sense, but also its associative meanings. It manifests its maker’s still-living spirit, so perfectly characterized by his fellow woodworker Sam Maloof on the occasion of Nakashima’s passing, in 1990: “a way of life that many have sought, but few have found.”