Photograph © David Rago
Buying George Nakashima furniture: a view from the auction house salerooms from BBC 20th Century Expert Mark Hill
What defines the Modernist furniture of George Nakashima?
‘It is an art- and soul-satisfying adventure to walk in the forests of the world, to commune with trees… to bring this living material to the work bench, ultimately to give it a second life.’
This quote sums up the unique approach of the Japanese American Modernist furniture maker George Nakashima to both materials and his work. But it’s not only Nakashima’s approach that’s unique, the mid century furniture designs that grew out of it is unique in many ways too.
After training as an architect, George Nakashima settled in Japan in the mid-1930s, where he worked for American Modernist architect Antonin Raymond, whose work, like his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, drew on some elements of traditional Japanese design (See Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, as well as his design for the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo). He soon became fascinated by the Japanese Mingei folk art movement, which called for a return to traditional techniques and craftsmanship.
After his return to the US in 1941, George Nakashima, like many Japanese Americans, was interned in a camp during the Second World War. However, he met the elderly Japanese woodworker and carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa there and under Hikogawa, Nakashima was able to hone the practical techniques behind the Modernist furniture designs that he had admired so much in the mid-1930s. On his release in 1943, he built a studio in rural Pennsylvania, from where he was to work until his death in 1990.
What sets George Nakashima’s furniture apart from his Modernist contemporaries?
Although his Scandinavian Modernist peers, such as Tapio Wirkkala and Finn Juhl, also focused on the natural beauty of wood, George Nakashima’s furniture stands apart. By showing off entirely natural lumps, bumps and grains, and contrasting them against hard geometric lines, he accentuates the fact that there are no straight lines in nature.
What are the characteristics of George Nakashima furniture?
Although his inspirations may be deemed mystical, Hippy-esque, and even proto-New Age (although he predated these two movements), there’s nothing nebulous in George Nakashima’s furniture, which is of the highest quality, having been built by hand with incredible control and precision. Working primarily with walnut, Nakashima prided himself in selecting each piece of wood personally – only the best and most representative would meet his strict criteria. On his hallmark Minguren pieces, in which nature meets geometry, he simply cut and polished the surface. Shown off at its best, the wood itself becomes the decoration, from the intricate patterning of the grain, to the naturally occurring holes, knots and burrs, and the random edges and forms that were usually cut away by other Modernist furniture makers.
Any added elements of design are kept as simple as the stands the timber is displayed on. Sometimes a panel is sliced to create a mirror image, and sometimes a small butterfly joint is inserted to join panels, or to reinforce a natural split. This simplicity can also be found in his Japanese-inspired more Modernist designs such as the Conoid range. Both styles fitted perfectly with Mid Century Modern tastes in interior design.
George Nakashima’s work may not have been as globally influential as that of other mid century designers but, as many of us in the collecting or design worlds know, a strong, singular vision and a fascinating story is often more important, and nearly always more compelling.
What would you expect to pay for George Nakashima furniture?
Those pieces of George Nakashima furniture that show the key components of his style fetch the highest prices today. At the ‘top of the tree’ are his Minguren tables that combine unique timber slabs with starkly geometric bases. The more intricate natural detail on display the better. In 2002, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg joined a legion of Hollywood stars who are fans of his work by paying $130,500 for a 14ft long table. This has since been eclipsed many times – for example, the table with a buck-eye burl top made in 1981 shown here fetched over $280,000 in 2007.
Never inexpensive, the price of George Nakashima furniture has risen dramatically in the past decade, and now range from £5,000-12,000 for small tables, to around £15,000-35,000 for larger pieces. In general, designs that are simpler or show a more diluted version of his style are less expensive.
George Nakashima chairs, particularly the Conroid Basic spindle-backed, may fetch around £1,500 each, but their anonymous look means your guests won’t be able to guess – and gasp at – the designer so easily. Move towards his more characteristic Modernist ‘cushion chairs’, or his Japanese-inspired floor lamps or rectangular cabinets, and you’re usually back to prices in excess of £5,000, and quite often double that if the piece is large.
Nakashima’s favoured wood was characterful walnut, so George Nakashima furniture made from other woods, such as English oak, are scarcer and tend to fetch more – especially if the visual interest in the timber is there too. Provenance also adds desirability, particularly if a piece bears his signature and/or the client’s name in pencil. The identity of the person who commissioned or bought a piece, the date when it was made and, on rare occasions, the inclusion of Nakashima’s original drawings, can all lead to markedly higher values.
How easy is it to find George Nakashima furniture in the UK?
George Nakashima isn’t a name that’s widely known here in the UK, but his unique work is not to be ignored in the history of mid century design, particularly with relevance to the burgeoning Craft movement. It’s far better known in the US, where Nakashima has been championed by Arts & Crafts guru David Rago, whose auction house is based in the same town as Nakashima’s home and studio. As prices have risen over the past decade, other important auction houses have turned to his work, including Freeman’s in Philadelphia, and Richard Wright in Chicago. In terms of galleries, only a few top tier dealers in or near major cities will offer a selection.
Useful links and information
Check out Mark Hill’s article on George Nakashima’s furniture in MidCentury issue 02