While most followers of the arts and crafts movement held socialist or utopian ideals, George Nakashima really walked the walk. The Japanese American furniture maker and architect travelled the world in search of meaning, and his voyage of discovery is revealed in new documentary George Nakashima, Woodworker, which premieres online at Design Miami on 2 October.
Nakashima’s belief was that when you made furniture, you created a new life for a tree. His work showcases the natural beauty of wood and was made without mass production. The compound of 18 buildings in concrete, cement and glass that he designed for himself and his family in New Hope, Pennsylvania, became a National Historic Landmark in 2014. There’s a Nakashima museum and gallery in Takamatsu, Japan.
“His importance as a designer is hard to overstate,” says Robert Aibel, founder and co-director of Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia and an authority on Nakashima. “His influence is worldwide as he is one of the few American designers lauded as a master woodworker of the 20th century.”
The new documentary is as much a personal journey as any of Nakashima’s creations. Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, the designer’s daughter, also a woodworker, and her cousin, TV producer John Terry Nakashima, have worked on the film since George died in 1990. “We discovered stashes of my father’s letters and photographs which piqued our curiosity and made us explore the history of our common ancestor,” says Mira. “For me, it was a way to understand what made him tick. For John Terry, it was also an exploration of the Japanese side of our family.”
George Nakashima, his wife Marion and Mira were imprisoned in an Idaho internment camp during the war. It was there that he learnt traditional Japanese woodworking skills from another prisoner.
“Uncle George was a mystery to me,” says John. “He was not your typical American man. We knew he had been all over the world; he was clever and sophisticated. But [on one visit to Nakashima’s compound], I started to become aware that these buildings and this place would have never happened without Uncle George. That if you had a strong vision, knew how to build, could afford the land and the materials, you could invent your life.”
Nakashima graduated with a masters degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1931. He then sold his car and bought a round-the-world steamship ticket.
“He knew he couldn’t create until he found a reason to create,” says John. “He somehow knew the path was to immerse himself in the cultures he felt might have answers. I’m still amazed that George set out with the blessing of his parents, in the midst of the Great Depression, to follow his instincts around the world seeking the answers to the most difficult question – and it actually worked.”
On his travels, Nakashima worked on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and oversaw construction of the first reinforced concrete building in India – the Golconde Dormitory in Pondicherry.
In Japan he absorbed the philosophy of Mingei – the idea of design to be inexpensive and for everyday use by ordinary people – and in India he became a follower of the guru Sri Aurobindo. “There must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man,” he explained, rather gnomically, in his 1981 autobiography, The Soul of a Tree. “The object created can live forever. The tree lives on in its new form. The object cannot follow a transitory ‘style’, here for a moment, discarded the next. Its appeal must be universal.”
Mira and John Terry travelled to Japan and India in the early 2000s and interviewed everyone from Sori Yanagi, son of Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Mingei movement and author of The Unknown Craftsman, to Nakashima’s Pondicherry-based friend Udar Pinto, an engineer who worked on Golconde and was also an expert on Sri Aurobindo.
This documentary will hopefully inspire, inform and continue the intellectual adventure George began
While Mira used their research to write the book Nature Form & Spirit (2003), her cousin continued the odyssey. “We asked John Terry to show us his film at a family reunion in 2010,” says Mira, “then at several other events. Each version was different from the next, with different points of view, different people interviewed, different material. It seemed like John Terry didn’t really want to ‘finish’ it. By the time he was nearing the 20-year mark, he had shot different parts in different formats and he kept trying to fill in with still photography which did not exist … but I think he was relishing the discovery of not only his Uncle George’s history, but his own as well.”
So why did John’s work take so long? “George was the type of interviewee that was either a dream or a nightmare. The documentary is built on several interviews with George, some quite lengthy. It seemed that all a journalist needed to do was, instead of asking a question, just say, ‘OK, begin.’ I like to imagine that journalist stumbling out after hearing George’s epic, dazed and confused by his story. His experiences in Paris, Japan, China, France and India were full of esoteric cultural and spiritual concepts. If the reporter had a follow-up question, he probably didn’t know what to ask.”
It seems a shame that when John finally declared the documentary finished, the festivals and screening rooms scheduled to host the long-awaited film this year were shut because of Covid-19. “This documentary will hopefully inspire, inform and continue the intellectual adventure which his uncle began so many years ago,” says Mira. “And, as John Terry says, “It will be a quiet premiere – and George may have wanted it that way.”’
• George Nakashima, Woodworker premieres 2 October at Design Miami/Shop. To join the virtual premiere register online here.