NEW HOPE, PENNSYLVANIA – When master craftsman George Nakashima looked at a piece of wood, he did not just see material to make furniture. “Dad listened to the spirit of the wood,” said his daughter Mira Nakashima.
George Nakashima’s furniture, which brought out the beauty of rough edges, knotholes, cracks, and other natural features of wood, is now prized as art and considered among the best examples of the American craft movement.
Since his death in 1990, Mira has carried on his legacy, creating furniture with a team of craftsmen at his studio in rural Pennsylvania. The studio complex itself is part of that legacy. But now the World Monuments Fund says it is at risk.
In October, the New York-based organization added the buildings George created to a list of endangered cultural sites around the world. The biannual list is meant to raise awareness of the sites and help secure funds for their preservation.
The woodworker’s home and studio is one of only a few sites in the United States to be listed. The buildings are not falling apart, but Mira, now in her 70s, says a plan and expertise are needed to preserve the place where her father created his life’s work.
“The architecture that was built here . . . I don’t think you can ever build it again. It was experimental in its time . . . nobody has done it since,” she said.
The seven buildings George designed on the site combine a simple Japanese aesthetic with midcentury modern sensibilities. Three are on the watch list, including a small museum with a plywood shell roof that appears strikingly angular from the outside but showcases a graceful curve within.
The museum and other buildings used reinforced concrete, which is susceptible to weakening over time. Squirrels sometimes gnaw at the museum’s patchwork of wood window frames and Japanese-style slatwork. A tile mosaic on the front of the building has been exposed to weather for over 40 years.
In creating his pieces, Nakashima looked not only to the tree itself, but to his training as an architect. “I think architects have a different way of approaching design . . . that kind of experience is important to the Nakashima approach,” Mira said.
George Nakashima was born in 1905 in Seattle to parents who emigrated from Japan. He studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as an architect in Japan and India before returning to Seattle.
In the hysteria of World War II, Americans of Japanese descent living on the West Coast were subject to discrimination and baseless suspicion. In 1942, George and his family were among the more than 120,000 forced to abandon their homes and property and move into internment camps.
But while living in the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, George met a carpenter who taught him to use the traditional Japanese tools and joining techniques that would become important to his woodwork.
In 1943, Antonin Raymond, with whom George had worked in Tokyo, sponsored him to leave the camp with his wife and young daughter and come to work as a laborer at his Pennsylvania farm. In 1946 he built his first studio and began to develop his distinctive style.
For Mira, who was her father’s apprentice for 20 years, preserving the buildings is now a part of keeping the style alive.
Mira also studied architecture, but her assistant designer, Miriam Carpenter, was trained in design. Carpenter said that working in Nakashima’s buildings means being surrounded by the choices that reflect his style.
For example, she pointed out that both the exposed ceiling beams and the base of a Nakashima table are tapered, giving a delicate appearance without compromising structural integrity.
Just as George’s furniture design reflects his experience as an architect, the buildings and grounds evince the same respect for nature as his unembellished tables.
“He built the same way he designed a piece of furniture. He worked around the natural shape of the piece of wood. When he built the buildings he built around the natural shape of the property,” Mira said.
The land has a hill and a meadow surrounded by woods. Rather than building below or leveling the area, George chose to perch the buildings on the slope, affording a view of the meadow.
Working among the small, naturally lit buildings set among the trees, the current Nakashima woodworkers are living out one of George’s basic beliefs: that people should have contact with the reality of nature. It shows in their work.
“If we were working in a warehouse, it wouldn’t leave the same impression. There is something about the landscape and the buildings that is very quieting,” said Mira.