George Nakashima, 85; Master Woodworker, Furniture Maker

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From Times Staff and Wire Reports

George Nakashima, the master woodworker who drew on what he called “the intrinsic spirit of the Japanese people” and his own reverence for trees to craft a rich legacy in furniture, has died at age 85.

Nakashima, who was born in Spokane, Wash., died Friday at his home here after what his family said was a brief illness.

He was known for working with untrimmed slabs of wood, especially black walnut and redwood. His self-described “reason for doing” took him into the forests of the United States and the temples of India for inspiration.


He often left holes and cracks in the final furniture pieces that ranged up to $10,000 in price to capture the character of the trees he utilized.

In 1986, Philadelphia Museum of Art Director Anne d’Harnoncourt called Nakashima a national treasure. His work appeared in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in many galleries. The American Craft Museum in New York last year staged a major retrospective of his work.

In his work and in such books as “The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworkers’ Reflections,” published in 1981, he explained his quest for spiritual peace.

Nakashima graduated from the University of Washington and later traveled to Japan and worked in the Tokyo offices of an American architect. After designing a monastery dormitory, he married, returned to the United States with his wife and opened a small furniture shop in Seattle.

The couple were interned in Idaho with other Japanese-Americans during World War II, but a former employer, Antonin Raymond, arranged for the Nakashimas to join him at his farm in New Hope in 1943. Nakashima started another shop with $100.

His clients came to include New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, for whom he made furniture, and Columbia University, Mt. Holyoke College and the International Paper Corp., for whom he created interiors.


Nakashima is survived by his wife, Marion, a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, who has taken over much of the design work of her father’s firm.