George Nakashima’s Origins Collection for Widdicomb
Text by Melissa Fox. Historic Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids History and Special Collections (GRHSC), Archives, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, Michigan..
A new type of man must be born who is as capable with machinery and tools as he is with a pencil…
— George Nakashima
When one thinks of modern furniture in West Michigan, the images that come to mind are likely those iconic pieces produced by Herman Miller, the Eames lounge chair, the Noguchi table, or the modular storage wall designed by George Nelson. But furniture companies in Grand Rapids caught the modern bug too, and hired designers to create signature lines for them, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings designed for Widdicomb from the mid 1940s through the mid 1950s, Finn Juhl designed for Baker in 1951, and George Nakashima created the Origins Collection for Widdicomb in 1959. Often these were modern lines that ran alongside more traditional furniture, so that the companies were offering a modern option to their customers rather than being leaders in modern design. Still, they sought high profile designers who produced signature pieces that were not only popular in their day, but have proven to have lasting appeal, and remain highly collectible. For example, a pair of Nakashima nightstands, produced by Widdicomb, are worth as much as $8,000.
George Nakashima was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Washington in 1929 and a Masters degree in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930.
From the mid to late 1930s, Nakashima embarked on an educational journey, living in Paris and working for a music publisher, in Toyko working for Antonin Raymond’s architectural firm, and in Pondicherry, India working as a representative of Raymond’s office. Hedesigned a dormitory, Golconda, as well as the furniture for it, which was handmade at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, where he was also a disciple. There he was given the name Sundaranada, sanskrit for “one who delights in beauty.”
Nakashima writes in his book, The Soul of a Tree, that “after having spent seven years in Asia, with its tradition of fine craftsmanship, I felt I should take a survey trip from Seattle to California to see firsthand what was considered the best of modern American architecture. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright was especially disappointing to me, although the forms used were interesting and the results were causing a certain excitement in the architectural world. I found the structure and the bones of the building somehow inadequate, however, and the workmanship shoddy. I felt that I must find a new vocation, something that I could coordinate from beginning to end. I decided to follow woodworking as my life’s work.”
In the early 1940s, Nakashima and his family were interned at Minidoka, Idaho because of their Japanese ancestry. There he met a Japanese carpenter, for whom he became both designer and apprentice, learning traditional woodworking skills and philosophies. In 1943, Nakashima moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania and began to establish his business, the roots of which still exist today in the hands of his daughter, Mira.
In his studio work, Nakashima was thoughtful and deliberate in both his choice of wood and in his methods for shaping it into furniture. His work is simple, modern and organic, with strong wood grains often featuring burls and knots, such as in the book-matched table tops he designed. Nakashima’s studio work has been featured in many exhibitions in the United States and around the world.
In 1959, Nakashima designed the Origins Collection for Widdicomb. Though it is more stylized than his studio work, the pieces feature rare woods such as Carpathian elm, laurel, and rosewood, and were noted for their fine craftsmanship and attention to the natural beauty of the wood. The introduction to the Collection in the catalog notes that there “is a subtle elimination of straight lines; almost all pieces have edges that are beveled back ten degrees; many tops overhang substantially more than is usual; and upholstered pieces achieve a “forward thrust” due to the canting of the legs.” The only finish available on the Laurel wood patterns in the collection was the Sundra finish, sanskrit for “thing of beauty,” perhaps a nod to Nakashima’s time in India. The original furniture catalog featuring the Origins Collection can be viewed in the Local History and Special Collections Department at the Grand Rapids Public Library, as can the furniture catalogs from many other local furniture manufacturers. Nakashima also designed furniture for Knoll, wherein the simplicity in his designs and attention to detail are seen in both the iconic Splay Leg Table and Straight Chair.
Nakashima received the Gold Craftsmanship Medal from the American Institute of Art in 1952, the Silver Medal of Honor in Design and Craftsmanship from the Architectural League of New York in 1960, and in 1983 accepted the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an honor bestowed upon him by the Emperor of Japan.
In 2014, as part of the Michigan Modern: Design that Shaped America symposium, Mira Nakashima spoke about her father’s work in general, as well as the Origins Collection he designed for Widdicomb. A portion of that talk can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/107938764 (Michigan Modern - Mira Nakashima)
Nakashima did not design many pieces for mass production, preferring instead to design at his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania and focus on the handmade, high quality furniture that he is most famous for. In this way the Origins Collection is particularly special as part of the furniture history of Grand Rapids, and draws a connection to a designer with a philosophy beyond mid-century style and aesthetic, to the elemental simplicity of turning a tree into a table or a chair, and the dedication to craftsmanship in the process of making it.
The Soul of a Tree: A Master Woodworker’s Reflections, George Nakashima
Grand Rapids Press, articles and images circa 1959
Widdicomb furniture catalog, circa 1959, Local History and Special Collections Grand Rapids Public Library
George Nakashima Woodworker, website, nakashimawoodworker.com
Knoll Furniture, 1938-1960, Steven and Linda Rouland
Knoll Design, Eric Larrabee
Knoll: A Modernist Universe, Brian Lutz
The Stylist, circa 1959