The Legacy of George Nakashima
by Crissa Shoemaker DeBree
Bucks County Courier Times

Mira Nakashima-Yarnall George Nakashima became famous for furniture designs that eschewed mass production and embraced the natural beauty of wood.

At the same time, he marveled at modern technology, said his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. He bought a Mazda RX-7 sports car because he was fascinated with the rotary engine, for example.

"He did complain profusely about the computer, every day, for three years," she said. Then, one day, he came into the office and said word processing was useful, after all.

There's no telling what he'd think about the Web site devoted to the woodworking business that continues today, 17 years after his death.

George Nakashima was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1905. He earned degrees in architecture from the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After spending time in Paris, he traveled around the world and landed a job with American architect Antonin Raymond, who sent Nakashima to India to be the architect for that country's first reinforced concrete building.

While in India, Nakashima became a monk at an ashram, a Hindu religious community, and a disciple of Hindu yogi Sri Aurobindo.

He returned to the United States at the beginning of World War II. He married his wife, Marion, in 1941 and the couple, along with an infant Mira, were sent to a Japanese-American internment camp in Idaho. It was there that he learned woodworking from a Japanese artist.

The Nakashima family was released from the camp in 1943 with Raymond's help and settled in Solebury, where the family homestead and woodworking shop remain today.

In interviews and in his autobiography, "The Soul of a Tree," Nakashima said he would spend long periods of time before deciding what to do with a single piece of wood. The finished pieces were lauded for their use of the wood's natural shape and character and the simplicity of their design.

"When I'm making something out of a piece of wood, I have a long dialogue with it, sometimes for years," Nakashima said in a 1979 interview. "I have to find my own relationship with the spirit of a tree, and pretty soon, the wood evolves as a form."

His furniture graces homes throughout the world and demands tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, at auction. He designed the Peace Altar for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York as well as many other pieces.

Nakashima died in 1990 at the age of 85. His children - daughter Mira and son Kevin - his widow, Marion, and his grandchildren found there was plenty of business to keep them going.

But that business dried up after three years, said Nakashima-Yarnall, 65, who's now chief designer of the Nakashima business.

"We ran out of work," she said. "I didn't know how to market myself. And he [Nakashima] didn't market me. Nobody knew we were still here. And if they did, they didn't think I could do it."

Retrospectives of her father's work at the Michener Museum in Doylestown and the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia renewed public interest and helped Nakashima-Yarnall get out the word that the business had, indeed, continued.

George Nakashima, Woodworker, has 15 employees who continue to work at the compound off Aquetong Road in Solebury. They follow the principles of woodworking that Nakashima made famous.

The secondary market for Nakashima furniture, at auctions and antique galleries, has fueled demand for new pieces, Nakashima-Yarnall said.

Her line, called the Keisho Collection, pays homage to her father's designs. Keisho means continuance or succession in Japanese. The pieces are dedicated to her mother, who died in 2004, and designed by Nakashima-Yarnall and the craftsmen trained by her father.

Nakashima-Yarnall said she has conversations with the wood, as did her father. But her conversations are different.

"I don't think any two people have the same sense," she said. "I rely on the wood for inspiration."

On the Web

This article was originally published under the title "A Woodworking Whiz"
by the Bucks County Courier Times. Reprinted here with their kind permission.
Author Crissa Shoemaker DeBree can be reached at 215-949-4192 or

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