The Decorative Art of George Nakashima: Know Before You Bid

James Ardis
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Special-order coffee table by George Nakashima. Photo courtesy of Rago.
Special-order coffee table by George Nakashima. Photo courtesy of Rago.

The son of Japanese émigrés, artist George Nakashima, was forced into a Japanese internment camp in 1942. He was released a year later, but only on the grounds that he would work on a farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Every night on the farm, he made time for his art, in a workshop he constructed out of a former milk house. In the years that followed, George Nakashima’s woodwork became more renowned, and he bought more land in New Hope. Eventually, he was able to build an art complex fitting of what many consider to be a foundational American craftsman of the 20th century.

From his time in New Hope to his childhood memories in the Boy Scouts in Spokane, Washington, the outdoors played a profound role in George Nakashima’s life and art. He aimed to embrace the natural world and include every part of it in his woodwork, even its imperfections. “Instead of a long-running and bloody battle with Nature to dominate her,” he once wrote, “‘we can walk in step with a tree to release the joy in her grains…”

George Nakashima Table on Offer From Rago

Featured in the upcoming Modern Design auction, presented by Rago, are two George Nakashima furniture pieces. This includes a coffee table produced in 1971 (pictured above). When looking at the table, most viewers’ eyes will be drawn to the burl, which is a deformed tree growth caused by stress. Instead of hiding the burl of this English oak, Nakashima makes it the piece’s defining characteristic.

The table also contains a noted feature of George Nakashima’s later work, the butterfly joint. This technique was used to make functional items, like tables and cabinets, out of imperfect wood with minimal intervention from the artist. Here, two rosewood butterflies appear on the lot’s underside.

Instead of limiting, Nakashima found working with imperfect materials offered him limitless opportunities. “‘Each flitch, each board, each plank can have only one ideal use,” he wrote. “The woodworker, applying a thousan[d] skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realize its true potential.” This philosophy ensured that most of George Nakashima’s woodworks were unique and never mass-produced, even when he worked with manufacturers like Knoll. This encouraged many enthusiastic collectors, among them Nelson and Happy Rockefeller.

Kornblut cabinet by George Nakashima. Photo by Rago.
Kornblut cabinet by George Nakashima. Photo by Rago.

Rago Also Presents Cabinet by George Nakashima

The second piece of George Nakashima furniture available in this event is a Kornblut cabinet (pictured above) produced in 1989, a year before the artist’s death. Two natural fissures in the Persian walnut wood line the sides of the cabinet. Such fissures are common in the tall and deciduous Persian walnut tree. Here, Nakashima uses his butterfly technique to stabilize both sides. Opening the cabinet’s door also reveals an adjustable shelf.

The live auction, Modern Design featuring Ceramics and Glass, offered by Rago, begins on May 13th, 2020, at 10:00 AM CDT. Bidders interested in either of the George Nakashima woodworks can register and learn more about the pieces on Bidsquare. Both lots were acquired directly from the artist by Dr. Walter and Geraldine Waskow and were given to the next owners by descent.

UPDATE MARCH, 2021: Rago sold both George Nakashima furniture pieces in the May 2020 event. The special-order coffee table sold for slightly above its $20,000 low estimate, crossing the auction block for $22,500. Meanwhile, the Kornblut cabinet achieved a sum far larger than its $15,000 high estimate ($19,200). 

The value of George Nakashima’s woodwork remains stable in 2021. The Philadelphia-based auction house Freeman’s, for example, regularly brings Nakashima furniture to auction with great success. A trestle table by the craftsman offered by Freeman’s achieved $21,250 against an $18,000 high estimate at the end of last year. At the end of March 2021, collectors will have the opportunity to bid on a George Nakashima walnut Minguren coffee table offered by Ahlers & Ogletree.

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