Rhapsody in wood

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Even played against the twilight drama of the Pacific Ocean rushing and roaring as if aimed directly at the glass wall of this redwood living room in Malibu, the small, solitary chair has a commanding presence, serene and reassuring as the rosy horizon turns to gray, and gray turns abruptly to black — the black void of an infinite coastal sky. The chair looks just right in its far corner facing this untamable force of nature. Contemplate it for a moment there in the pitch of such terrifying beauty, and you're inclined to see it as a quiet little force of nature itself.

Curiously, George Nakashima's sculptural wood furniture is also just right in the boxy white rooms of a polite suburban house in Palos Verdes, congenially mingling with cartoon-colored Memphis sofas and modern art. And, one has no reason to doubt, in an American country interior on the East Coast, an adobe in the Southwest and a steel contemporary in the Midwest.

It's the warmth and grace and purity that make it so universally appealing and appropriate, says one collector; the calm, grounded feeling it brings no matter where you see it, says another. The naturalness and architectural construction, thinks an architect, and the spontaneity — how it has the same flourish of movement as a Picasso drawing. Maybe the way it's both rational and somehow wild, a curator decides. And luscious. Emphatically luscious. The spirituality, they all agree, and how it transfers into your home. And if that sounds weird, they can't help it, it's true. In the insistent opinion of Peter Loughery, owner of Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA), "It's in a category unto itself."

By the time you've gone through the two floors of Nakashima furniture in an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in downtown L.A., and seen the last of the 50 pieces (several of which are by Mira Nakashima, who has taken over the work of her late father), you're not likely to question these impassioned assertions. Or why these designs have become, as Bob Aibel of Philadelphia's Moderne Gallery — the leading dealer of vintage Nakashimas in the country — will inform you, the hottest thing going in the world of 20th century furniture: "In the last 10 years, it exploded in America; in the last five, it's doubly exploded. The big change is that it's not just in America anymore. Interest spans the globe."

In June, an English oak burl dining table, 8 feet in diameter, was sold to a Manhattan dealer for $129,250 at LAMA, the highest public price ever paid for a piece of George Nakashima furniture. That's roughly 86 times more than it originally sold for in 1965. Both Aibel and Loughery are certain we haven't seen the end of the escalation. "I think the important pieces have a long, long way to go," says Loughery.

If the museum show presents each piece in splendid isolation to reveal it as more than just a mere functional item, but as a work of art, the pieces are nevertheless more at home in the context of their original intent — as honest furniture meant for everyday use. That their lyricism and gasp-inducing beauty seem to have destined them for viewing behind "Please Don't Touch" signs in no way usurps their truer meaning. As Nakashima once said in a filmed interview, "You find, I think, the nicest things in simplicity and directness."

After the show closes Jan. 2, the furniture will be returned to the handful of collectors who lent household pieces, and to Nakashima's compound in New Hope, Pa., to be used in the homes of his children, Mira and Kevin, and in various other structures that he designed and built himself. Nakashima pieces, committed buyers have discovered, only get better with age and a few (literal) hard knocks.

Nakashima was clear about his point of view on his work. He wrote in his 1981 book, "The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker's Reflections," that "furniture should be lived with and not treated as something overly precious. A certain amount of scratching and denting adds character to a piece. To me there is nothing quite so uninteresting as a shining, perfectly smooth surface that looks as though it has never been used."

In this way, his attitude mirrors the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, a Zen philosophy that, in part, embraces the beauty of things imperfect, irregular, unconventional, unpretentious, earthy and simple. The same might be said of Nakashima.

Assembling the details of his life and career — from his birth in Spokane, Wash., in 1905 to his death in New Hope in 1990 — it becomes clear that the essence of the furniture can't be divorced from the essence of the man. Each piece is infused with his character, his worldview, if you will, which was shaped by the simultaneously complex and straightforward path he traversed through several cultures and philosophies.

He was a trained architect with a master's from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he lived, worked and journeyed, for brief periods in the '20s and '30s, in New York state, and Paris, Tokyo and India, before moving back to the States. In 1941, he married Los Angeles-born Marion Okijama, who was teaching at a private school in Tokyo. In 1942, the Nakashimas and their baby daughter were among the 120,000 Japanese Americans interned in what were known, euphemistically, as "relocation centers." There, Nakashima turned a political indignity into a personal dignity (the experience "left no scars," he said), rising above shame and bitterness to work with a carpenter trained in traditional Japanese techniques. "I learned a great deal from this man through his hundreds of small acts of perfection," he wrote.

After the family's release a year later, the Nakashimas settled in rural Bucks County, Pa., where they lived, like early American pioneers, "close to the soil and trees," wrote Nakashima. He rarely practiced architecture after that, except to build, one by one over the next four decades, 15 structures on the family compound in New Hope, plus a church in Japan, a monastery in New Mexico and a chapel in Mexico. Here on his 9 acres, he lived and worked anachronistically, adhering with unflinching stubbornness to the philosophy and practice of hand craftsmanship in an age of mechanization and mass-production. Like Arts and Crafts pioneers John Ruskin and William Morris, he believed such an approach was necessary if one was not to be enslaved by machines.

His architecture is an aesthetic bridge between East and West. Some of the buildings on the compound are extremely modern in their exteriors, but the interiors are modulated by Japanese proportion and motifs. He used shoji screens in every one, and created a great flexibility and fluidity in the flow between inner and outer environments, a common characteristic of Japanese houses. The primary goal of his work, writes Mira Nakashima in her 2003 book, "Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima," "was to encourage human beings to live in harmony with nature … "

From youth, Nakashima was a spiritually oriented iconoclast, calling himself — at various times — "the world's first hippie," a "Japanese Druid," a Japanese Shaker " and "a citizen of the world." His approach to life and work, which he strove to integrate, was part Shinto, part Buddhist, part Hindu, part Christian.

Every step of the way he was open to new experiences and their indelible influences on him. He volunteered his services as architectural supervisor for Golconde, a dorm at an ashram in India, where he ultimately spent two years as one of the first disciples of the Hindu mystic Sri Aurobindo.

Nakashima was a nisei (one born in America of Japanese immigrant parents), descended on both sides from the samurai warrior class of feudal Japan. From the start, he exhibited certain inherited traits from his class: stoicism, moral idealism, frugality, lack of ego and an unyielding sense of duty to his work.

He was always both Japanese and American, even on his birth certificate. His parents gave him a Western first name, George, and a Japanese second name, Katsutoshi.

Like other nisei growing up in the rugged Northwest, Nakashima — a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout — was a child of nature. Taking long, solitary hikes in the Cascade and Olympic mountains, he found what he more than once referred to as "kinship" with the woods and the wilderness. His intimate bond with nature was intense and highly personal, and it permeated his whole being.

So tender was his response to trees, in particular, that he wrote and spoke of them in later years as though he were referring to a loved one: "I go back often to the land from which the timber has come, the woods and forest around the world. It is like visiting relatives."

As the title of his book suggests, he saw through to the soul of the tree. Throughout, there are passages — some almost akin to sonnets or odes — employing words usually applied to humans. He writes poignantly of the tree's joys and tragedies, its suffering, its patience, nobility and heart, its yearning to live again, its decent intentions. "It does nothing but good with its prodigious ability to serve."

During the nearly six decades he spent making furniture, Nakashima felt the same kinship with the cut wood. He would sometimes "meditate with a board" for years, to "search for the essence," and gradually a design would evolve. The design work started with the tree and the cutting of the logs, with which he took the utmost care.

In his creations, it was his mission to give the tree a second life, to let it live on in its new form. He let the wood speak for itself. He listened, then guided, encouraged it as if he were showing it — as he would a child — what it was meant to be, flaws and all. In fact, the flaws were regarded as part of the intrinsic radiance and power of the wood.

"He called himself a ragpicker of the furniture industry, because he was interested in all the discards," says Mira's husband, Jon Yarnall, a woodworker at the compound. "He thought that when a board was almost useless, that's when it had the most character."

Every woodworker since the '60s has been influenced by Nakashima's use of the free-form board, says Aibel. "In fact, his influence has been formative. Every student has been exposed to the concept of choosing a log, cutting a log, respecting the wood — and not discarding a piece because of its imperfections."

Nakashima was the first to play up the natural knotholes and gaps, to boldly incorporate them in his free-form designs as enchanting anomalies of nature, necessary components to allowing the wood to show its wonder and worth.

Study his 1989 Tsuitate Standing Piece at the museum, and the interior markings of the wood call to mind, variously, the seasons of life, cliffs, mountain passages, rivers, sandstorms, rain, arteries, a nose, an eye, a chin, a whole hypnotic universe. The wood comes astonishingly, poetically, alive. Like all his furniture, it seems to have an inner light.

He simply helped the wood along by hand-cutting it with an instinctive precision, and building up a penetrating oil finish so that the surface took on greater smoothness, depth, even shimmer, bringing out the intricate dazzle of the grains. Some grains, in fact, look almost three-dimensional. Nakashima was also a master of the ancient technique of joinery (which he learned in the internment camp, then stylized and made his signature feature).

He never dominated the wood, however thought out and architectonic the final construction. If a cleanly geometric base of a table or bench sometimes appears, at first viewing, to be discordant with the curvaceous abandon of the nature-shaped top, the eye soon enough adjusts and recognizes the visual harmony of the piece, carefully considered and rendered.

"George could take a piece of wood — Mira can too — and decide how to cut it in exactly the right way to give it its best possible second life," says David Hovey, an architect and real-estate developer in Chicago and Scottsdale, Ariz., who has the largest collection — somewhere in the hundreds — of her father's (and her) work in the U.S. "It's an artistic genius that only a few architects or artists have. George was the best woodworker in the world, without equal."

Nakashima's Conoid chair, his most popular and the one most reproduced by Mira since his death, is considered a masterpiece of architectural engineering. Its fineness and deceptive delicacy give the impression that it can't possibly hold up. But after a 400-pound-plus friend of Palos Verdes collectors Stuart and Jackie Friedland sat in one of theirs and left it perfectly intact, they realized that this was a chair as sturdy as a chair ever needs to be.

Every Nakashima piece reveals a key aspect of his character and philosophy: a distinct lack of ego. (He refused to sign them until 1980 — and then only in India ink or with a felt-tip pen — and only under pressure, because so many imitators were beginning to copy them). "He is both present and not present in the work," say Karen Higa, who curated the L.A. museum show.

Nakashima surrendered his ego in almost every aspect of his life, with the exception of his paradoxical need to tightly, almost dictatorially, control all stages of production from conception to completion among the many artisans who eventually apprenticed at his studio. "He fired me over and over and over," Mira recalls by phone with great merriment. "But he never had the attitude, 'I am Nakashima, look at me. I'm better at this than anybody else.' He never wanted to make a splash."

And yet, his spirit and his spirituality inform every piece of wood he touched. He would have preferred to remain an afterthought, letting the design take all the applause — a quaint notion by the current standards of designers who rather graspingly, one could argue, market themselves as much as they market their works. It is an irony that would surely confound him that his furniture has become among the most identifiable and prized. Maybe it can be understood by Nakashima's own words: "A good design is a good design forever…. The object cannot follow a transitory 'style,' here for a moment, discarded the next. Its appeal must be universal."

And how would this frugal woodworker, who always "managed to bypass the money system," react to the staggering prices his furniture now commands? Says Mira, "He'd probably shrug his shoulders, chuckle and say, 'People are crazy.' "

*


Barbara King can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com


Where to see his work "George Nakashima: Nature, Form & Spirit" features rare examples of his work from 1943 until his death in 1990. The exhibit runs through Jan. 2 at the Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Los Angeles. Admission: $8 adults; $5 seniors; children 6 to 17, $4; younger than 6, free. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or go to http://www.janm.org .

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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