To Rest With An Honest Face

LAST year the American Craft Museum in New York devoted an exclusive show to George Nakashima, the furniture-maker. The timing proved to be fortuitous. While the museum harbored the Nakashima pieces, a fire at a collector's home in New Jersey destroyed many that remained outside. Furniture may hold as little interest for you as it does for me. But Nakashima, who died earlier this month, was as important for what he stood for as for the furniture he made.

His life was a little like that of the biblical Joseph, who fell among thieves but then prospered in Pharaoh's house.

Nakashima was born in Seattle, in the early years of the century, and studied to be an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked in Japan for an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, and then lived in an Ashram in India. He returned to the United States on the eve of the World War II.

That timing proved not so happy.

Soon thereafter, the US government sent him to a concentration camp in Idaho, with his young wife. But there he met a carpenter, a fellow Japanese trained in the traditional methods, who set him on his life work.

That work was making tables and chairs by hand, in workshops he built himself in New Hope, Pa. The chairs were elegant and simple (``Usefulness, but with a lyric quality,'' he said). The tables were dramatic slabs cut crosswise from carefully chosen trunks. He was a student of trees and traveled the world to select the ones most suited for his work.

Nakashima was utterly without pretense. He had the gnarled hands of a craftsman - part of a finger was missing - and there was about him a focus, a disdain for the nonessential (except a taste for funny hats). He lived by selling his furniture. But he kept the business small - no advertising, hardly even a sign of his establishment. Just a rural mail box marked ``Nakashima'' in hand lettering. ``If they want to reach us they have to find us,'' he said.

He was not one to moralize. But it was hard to visit his workshops without feeling the implicit judgment on the dominant business world, where enterprises become mountains for personal ambition, and where corporate empire builders buy and sell companies without any connection whatsoever to the product - the doing. It is economic adultery - the act without feeling or commitment.

Nakashima held that work, done well and for its own sake, would beget its due reward. His goal was to ``rest at night with an honest face.''

How many in corporate circles today can say that?

It is all too easy, though, for writers like myself to point the finger at the business world. Our own ambitions hide conveniently behind the cloak of public service and even art. Nakashima had a lesson for us as well.

He detested the ``self-expression'' view of art. His artistic model was the craftsman who labored on the great cathedrals of Northern France. ``At Chartres each craftsman made a contribution that was selfless, anonymous,'' he wrote. ``There was a subjugation of many wills to one ideal.''

This is not the reigning view in the writing world. Pop authors spin careers out of literary dancing on the table. Even journalists are slipping into a smarty-pants mode. (The buzzword at the newsweeklies these days is ``writing smart.'')

The prime offender is television, which turns journalists into personalities. The Washington talk shows used to feature journalists interviewing public officials. Now the McLaughlan Group and others dispense with the officials and make the journalists the stars.

Until World War II, most journalists didn't even get bylines. ``One can concentrate on the matter at hand without self-consciousness or the temptation to show off,'' wrote Lillian Ross, who did unsigned ``Talk of the Town'' features for the New Yorker for many years.

One doesn't have to go that far, however, to heed the example of George Nakashima. His endeavor was not to express himself, he said, but rather to find ``the best expression of a piece of wood.''

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