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
BACK IN TIME: INGERSOLL VILLAGE
Text by Pam VanderPloeg, copyright 2016 West Michigan Modern. Early Ingersoll Village photos can be found at http://www.kpl.gov/local-history/photos/houses-buildings-photos/ingersoll-village.aspx
Mid-century modern architectural history has, at its core, experiments with prefab housing systems, that were ahead of their time. One such experiment still stands in Kalamazoo and can be viewed both as historical artifact and a thriving community of houses that have adapted over time to meet family needs and modern lifestyles. On a quiet little street in Kalamazoo there is there is a collection of twelve houses built in 1945 in a variety of styles from Cape Cod to modern. The homes were designed by seven of the nation's noted architects of the day, including Alden Dow, Edward Durrell Stone, George Fred Keck, Hugh Stubbins, Royal Barry Willis, L. Morgan Yost and Harwell Hamilton Harris. This is a brief summary of how those houses came to be.
The houses are part of Ingersoll Village in Kalamazoo's "Hillsdale Park subdivision, north of West Main Street and west of Pinehurst." They were demonstration houses built around a prefabricated utility core housing, in a single unit, the plumbing, wiring and other mechanical systems and did not require a basement. The utility core was invented by architect J. Fletcher Lankton of Peoria, Illinois and the systems were produced by Kalamazoo's Ingersoll Steel and Disc Division of the Borg-Warner Corporation. Open houses were held to introduce them to the public. Apparently Ingersoll engineers and home economics specialists were designated to live in the houses to evaluate the efficiency of the utility core. Then the homes were sold to individual owners. And, of course, have since faired differently with modifications made to the original designs.
It seemed likely that homes would either be "remuddled" beyond recognition or in disrepair, the owners unaware of their significance but as my husband drove and I checked addresses, I found that the street was lovely and the houses hadn't changed significantly. The Edward Durrell Stone home stood proud and modern, looking more like the 1960's than the 1940's. The little enclave of Alden Dow houses was connected by a single driveway and was unique in that way.
The utility core concept was ahead of its time in 1945 and faced pushback from labor unions. Along with the shortages of copper and steel at the time, the concept didn't catch on. Years later the idea was revived in a federal multi-unit housing program .
Link here for more about Ingersoll Village by Catherine Larson and original photos on the Kalamazoo Public Library website: http://www.kpl.gov/local-history/houses-buildings/ingersoll-village.aspx .
In 1957, Faith Lutheran Church designed by E. John Knapp, located at the intersection of Fuller NE and Three Mile in Grand Rapids, won an award in the category of institutional design from the West Michigan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Faith Lutheran Church was the first church E. John Knapp designed in Grand Rapids. It was built in two stages of construction. Next time you drive by Faith Lutheran Church on Fuller, take a moment to see the two connected but very distinct structures. On the south, a two-sided brick wall projects out to a point from the main building and is connected to the main roof by a partial metal roof. Vertical brick beams separate the banks of windows on the south side. Today there is a partial sheltering brick wall on the south side of the building. The northern structure has a flat triangular facade that seems to grow out of the ground and hide the building behind it.
An early black and white photo shows the multi-level building with a flat roofed canopy and entry way leading from the parking lot into a beautiful vestibule faced with glass window walls. During the planning phase the building committee agreed that most people in that area (Fuller and Three Mile) would drive to church. Therefore the building entrances were located at back of the church off the parking lot and not on the street side. Today the flat roof has been replaced by a gable roof.
The architect especially likes this church because the north and south walls of the sanctuary were almost all glass. The church used Knapp's trademark system of walls consisting of 4x8 modules. The windows fit within the modular system and were stationary plate glass panels or smaller pop-out windows for air movement. Some were white painted insulated panels. The building committee understood "that we were designing a building where the membership could see that they were part of the world instead of hiding inside a building. The world could also see what was going on inside."
Knapp recalled that the first phase of the building didn't have any colored glass in the peak but the second one did. In the current photos he noticed that the original glass was changed later on to the three large white glass crosses.
According to E. John Knapp, the structure with the wooden cross at the peak was built first and the upper floor was the temporary church and the lower level was the temporary Sunday school. About five years later the second phase was completed and became the permanent sanctuary and the first stage became the Sunday School. The tall tower between the buildings was the chimney for the furnace. They added a beautiful wooden cross on the side.
Along the entire back of the building facing the parking lot was a long 16-foot wide corridor built in the modular design that connected the two buildings. So parents could walk down the corridor to pick up their children from Sunday school. It was a reception area as well as a corridor. People gathered there before and after church.
By the second year after they built the first unit, the congregation found that they were already overcrowded. It was an attractive building and attracted people. The building committee had purchased enough land for both stages of the building and the parking lot. Not many people realize a parking lot should be a least twice as large as the floor plan area of a church. The committee had purchased enough land. It was also big enough to store snow in the winter!
This color rendering by Obryon and Knapp illustrates the organic nature of the building which appears to grow naturally from the elevated site.
E. John Knapp built this early model to demonstrate his plan for the church.
As regards the interior, this early photo of the sanctuary illustrates the steep and dramatic angle of the beams that pierce the glass and extend to the ground outside. Notice the wonderful pendant lamps and the iconic mid-century planters that frame the seating area front and back. Everyone has a great view of the outside. Truly it is a sanctuary where nature is an integral component in the space.
This church has an extraordinary design and WMM is very grateful to E. John Knapp and daughter Marcia Krech for sharing these design and construction details. It is definitely worth stopping to take a closer look at Faith Lutheran Church.