George Nakashima’s Origins Collection for Widdicomb Furniture by Melissa Fox

A new type of man must be born who is as capable with machinery and tools as he is with a pencil… George Nakashima

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 (M.I.T.) in 1930. 

From the mid to late 1930’s 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 and designing 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 and 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 1940’s Nakashima and his family were interned at Minidoka, Idaho, as were all of those of Japanese ancestry. Here 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 elmination 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. Nakashima also designed furniture for Knoll, and wherein the simplicity in his design and attention to detail are seen in 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:  (Michigan Modern - Mira Nakashima.