Art From Slabs of Wood

Furnituremaker George Nakashima is a puzzle to the sophisticated arts world - a craftsman whose sense of beauty and proportion seems to grow out of an unusual philosophy of life.

THE only sign on the highway is a mailbox, with his name hand-lettered on the side. He asks that the address not appear in the paper. ``We don't go in for publicity,'' he says. ``If they want to reach us, they have to find us.''

George Nakashima has spent almost 50 years making furniture of wood. He is an artist, but one who shuns attention. He is a businessman, but not the usual kind. He doesn't want to get bigger or draw raves on Wall Street. He deplores a culture that measures value only by money.

``We can still try,'' he writes in his hand-lettered catalog, ``to create beauty so that an honest, skilled, and creative activity is possible: that we can rest for the night with an honest face.''

Known primarily in design circles, Nakashima is reaching a wider public now through an exclusive show at the American Craft Museum in New York (see article at lower right). But the world has come to Nakashima, not he to it. He goes about his work as quietly as before, revealing himself to an interviewer an inch at a time.

Nakashima speaks primarily through what he makes - wood chairs, tables, benches, and desks. The chairs are graceful and appropriate, the tables dramatic slabs cut crosswise through the trunk, the natural gnarls and imperfections becoming part of the beauty. The wood is joined with painstaking care, almost like a marriage grown ripe with years.

There is a sense of rightness, of things being just what they should be, no more or less. ``Usefulness, but with a lyric quality,'' Nakashima once observed.

Nakashima's customers are devoted. ``It has a remarkable soul,'' says Evelyn Krosnick of Princeton, N.J., who owned 112 pieces. (Sadly, a fire destroyed the Krosnicks' collection last month.)

Across the street from the Nakashima show, at the Museum of Modern Art, is the kind of furniture Nakashima doesn't make. A chaise longue of cardboard. Art Nouveau conceits. Most pieces suggest a desire for artistic self-expression.

Nakashima, by contrast, is more interested in eliminating those aspects of self not worthy of expression. His artistic ideal is the 13th-century craftsmen who built the cathedrals in northern France. ``At Chartres each craftsman made a contribution that was selfless, anonymous,'' he has written. ``There was a subjugation of many wills to one ideal.''

Nakashima has been a puzzle to the sophisticated arts world, more attuned to schools and fashions than to his kind of inner aspiration. The Craft Museum show is an example. It views Nakashima primarily through the lens of design trends such as the Arts and Crafts Movement.

In stressing this lesser point, the show seems to miss a larger one. Nakashima's work has arisen much less out of design schools and stylistic trends than out of a sense of right living and its proper expression.

Nakashima's autobiography, ``Soul of a Tree,'' is only half about himself. The rest is about trees and what he makes from them.

Nakashima tells of his boyhood in the Pacific Northwest, his architecture studies at the University of Washington and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his summer work on railroad gangs and at Alaskan fish canneries. After a stint with the New York City parks department, he set off for Paris, and fell in with the 1920s artistic avant-garde.

The hectic quest for novelty ``represented not truth, but a game,'' he writes. ``One to be played out, but which, rootless, eventually would die.''

He decided to visit the ancestral home in Japan, where he worked for an American architect who had helped Frank Lloyd Wright design the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The firm was to design the main building for an ashram in India. Nobody else wanted the project, so Nakashima went.

The ashram was that of Sri Aurobindo, a leader in the Indian independence movement, who had decided that India could not throw off its chains by political means alone. Nakashima refused payment for his work, joined the ashram, and stayed for two years. Typically, he does not say much about the teachings. ``It was not a religion,'' he recalled in an interview, ``but a direct experience.'' There were no mantras, and little ritual. The idea was not to avoid life, but to ``meet it head on.''

After two years in the ashram, he decided it was time to do just that, and returned to the United States. There he endured a trial that, like the Scriptural Joseph being sold into slavery, propelled him to his lifework.

America and Japan had just gone to war, and the government herded Nakashima and his new bride off to a concentration camp in Idaho. There he met a Japanese carpenter skilled in the traditional methods. Together they scavenged wood from the barracks construction and turned it into furniture. ``I made pretty good use of my time,'' he says.

Nakashima got out when the architect from Japan, now back in the US, offered him a job on his farm in Bucks County, Pa. Eventually a neighbor gave him three acres in return for some carpentry work. He lived in a tent and built a stone house by hand, doing his carpentry through the winter in an open garage.

Stanley Brogren, an architecture classmate of Nakashima's who is now retired in New Jersey, says the most striking thing about his work is the ``sense of scale - a feeling for what is appropriate in relation to the human being.''

This is apparent at his home here in New Hope. Nakashima and his wife still live in the stone house. But a compound of workshops and studios has grown up around it. The buildings are close together, and some are of ordinary concrete block. Yet somehow the scene is elegant and artful - the traditional Japanese ability to achieve a feeling of space through proportion and setting.

Nakashima's studio, a combination workroom and teahouse, is nestled into a hillside under an arched concrete roof. Boards - rough cuts of rare woods - lean against the walls like an artist's canvases, chalk marks sketching possible uses and cuts.

That is the only hint of accumulation, besides a bookshelf hidden behind a screen and stuffed with volumes in Japanese, English, and French. Beside his bed, he keeps a book called ``Pri`eres et M'editations de la M`ere'' (``Prayers and Meditations of the Mother'').

Nakashima is a short man, steady and alert in his ninth decade, a slow dignity of movement being the main evidence of time. He has the gnarled fingers of a workman.

His words are like his furniture, never extraneous or superficial. Beneath his gentle severity, one senses a sly wit.

His views are not conventional. He thinks Gandhi was an ``opportunist,'' and that since the 13th century there's been no architecture worth mentioning. But he speaks such things quietly, almost matter-of-factly, without apparent need to be seen as right.

It was the bad example of Frank Lloyd Wright - specifically, a Wright house in California - that made Nakashima decide to work with wood. ``What he said was pretty good,'' Nakashima says of Wright. But ``I resented the discrepancy between what he said and what he did. The whole thing was so phony, I just couldn't take it. The workmanship was so bad.''

The minute particulars of transverse cuts and dado joints are a kind of spiritual office, a connection to much broader concerns. Nakashima thinks the production fetish that dominates the West is leading nowhere. The Japan that America so envies, the Japan of Walkmen and VCRs, is one that has lost its way. ``I don't think there's a real sense of discrimination'' in Japan, he says, ``a creative force aside from just adapting or being successful.''

The US and Japan are ``both on the wrong track.'' Russia, too. ``One reason we do not get along with the Russians is that we are so similar,'' measuring progress by how much we produce.

In the mid-'70s, Nakashima designed a monastery for a little town in Mexico. ``The people were very poor,'' he says. ``But they have a kind of life that almost anyone could envy. Ultimately, one has to go beyond just one's physical needs.''

Unlikely as it seems, Nakashima thinks India's star is on the rise. ``Indians talk about our spiritual poverty, while we talk about their physical poverty,'' he says. ``There is not the same feeling toward the physical environment as in the West. That's the whole thing in the West. But it's secondary as far as Indian thinking goes.''

Precisely because they haven't totally succumbed to the ``massive materialism'' of Russia and the West, ``they are going to come out ahead a hundred years from now,'' he says.

Nakashima has made his peace with the machine. The power tools in his workshop are the kind found in suburban garages, plus a large band saw and plane.

But this is still a craft shop. Nakashima has about 10 helpers who make most pieces from start to finish. There is no mass production. His customers come mainly from the surrounding area, so he spends virtually nothing on promotion. ``We have managed to bypass the whole money system,'' he writes proudly.

Fine wood is becoming scarce, and he worries about his role in making it scarcer. He isn't satisfied with his defense. But it's the best he can do. ``If I don't buy it, someone else will buy it,'' he says. ``They will probably make less good use of it than I will. ... I'm not a reformer,'' he says. ``I'm not out to proselytize what I do. I don't mind being an example.''

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