NVC Newsletter

George Nakashima Woodworker Complex

November 2018, Volume 68, Issue 10

Reprinted from the National Park Service website and edited for length.

The George Nakashima Woodworker Complex, located in New Hope, Pennsylvania, was the home of the internationally renowned furniture designer and architect George Nakashima. The 12-acre complex has 21 buildings, all designed by Nakashima. The assortment of buildings, scattered across a wooded forest and open lawns, served as Nakashima's home and workspace until his death in 1990. Nakashima is recognized as one of America's most eminent furniture designer-craftsman and his style of "organic naturalism" can be seen in the buildings, landscape, and furniture located in the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex.

George Nakashima was born in 1905, in Spokane Washington, to Japanese immigrants Katsuharu and Suzu Thoma Nakashima. Both of his parents came from samurai families and this heritage influenced Nakashima's work ethic. He was accepted to the University of Washington and was given a one-year scholarship in 1928, to study architecture in Paris at the École Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Fountainebleu. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in architecture from Washington in 1929, and a Master's Degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1930. After graduating from MIT, Nakashima was hired by the Richard Brooks Studio in New York to paint murals for the New York state capitol building in Albany. A year later, the Long Island State Park Commission hired him to paint murals and design buildings.

After losing his job due to the Great Depression, Nakashima purchased an around-the-world steamship ticket and made his way to Paris, where he lived for the next year….Nakashima spent a year in Paris before going on to North Africa and Japan. In Japan, he worked for Antonin Raymond, who had collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and had set up an architectural office in Tokyo after completion of the project. While in Japan, Nakashima traveled with his coworker Junzo Yoshimura visiting architectural monuments, shrines, and temples, and attending tea ceremonies and festivals. These experiences gave Nakashima a deep appreciation for Japanese cultural and architectural traditions which was evident in his later work.

With the world on the verge of war, Raymond closed his offices in Japan and moved back to the U.S. Nakashima and his fiancée Marion Okajima, an American he had met while she was teaching English in Japan, returned soon after, marrying in 1941 and settling in Seattle, Washington. Nakashima started working for architect Ray Morin and also began to make furniture, setting up a small studio in the basement of the Maryknoll Boys' Club. His first privately-commissioned collection of handcrafted furniture was for cosmetics executive Andre Ligne. 

The start of World War II cut short Nakashima's forays into furniture making. While at Minidoka, Nakashima met Japanese carpenter Gentauro Hikogawa, who taught him the techniques of traditional Japanese woodworking. In 1943, William Emerson, the former Dean of the MIT School of Architecture, contacted Antonin Raymond, and asked if he would petition for the release of the Nakashima family from Minidoka. Raymond vouched for the Nakashima family and brought them to live on his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Because the War Relocation Authority would only allow Nakashima's release from Minidoka for agricultural farm work, he worked on his furniture designs in the evenings.

After being released from supervised sponsorship on the Raymond's farm, George and Marion rented a house nearby, eventually purchasing three acres of land from their landlord where, in 1946, Nakashima designed and built a workshop and house. As both Nakashima's family and his company grew, so did the Complex. The Showroom, Finishing Department, Chair Department, and the Conoid Studio were built in the 1950s, with Japanese motifs integrated into their designs. In the 1960s and 1970s he added, among other buildings, the Reception House, the Pool House, the Cloister, and the Arts Building. Nakashima designed all of the buildings on the property and supervised their construction.

George Nakashima was one of the preeminent furniture designer-craftsmen in the U.S., and a significant force within the American Craft movement of the mid-20th century. This movement rejected the mass-production of industrialization while at the same time embracing Modern styles and ideas that were international in scope. Influenced by spirituality and nature, Nakashima's signature features incorporated techniques intended to enhance the impact of wood's natural beauty. George Nakashima passed away in 1990, and today the complex is owned and operated by the Nakashima family. The George Nakashima Studio continues to produce his furniture designs while extending his traditions and aesthetics and preserving his methods and techniques through new designs created by his daughter Mira. 

Plan your visit

The George Nakashima Woodworker Complex, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 1847 Aquetong Rd., New Hope, PA. It is open to visitors on Saturdays from 1:00pm-4:30pm and is closed for all major holidays. Visitors may see examples work in the Showroom and Conoid Studio and take a self-guided tour of three of the buildings. Admission is free. Guided group tours are offered at 10:00am on the first Saturday of each month from April to August and October. Eight buildings are open to group tours. A minimum donation of $25 is requested for group tours. Space is limited to 30 people. For more information, visit the George Nakashima Woodworker website or call 215-862-2272.

[To read the complete article, go to: https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/asian_american_and_pacific_islander_heritage/George-Nakashima-Woodworker-Complex.htm ]