In December, the staff members at JASGP were treated to a rare opportunity for a tour of the George Nakashima Woodworker Gallery and Studio. The organization was awarded as a Cultural Ambassador at our most recent Annual Meeting, and having spoken with many members of the family at the event, they graciously extended an invitation to us so we could see some of the wonderful things that they do at their compound in New Hope, PA. George Nakashima worked in New Hope since 1943, when he was sponsored for release from the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho by his former employer, Antonin Raymond. Nakashima’s fascinating story marks him as an important figure in Japanese-American history, and the knowledge that we were going to be experiencing what was the enduring legacy of an eminent craftsman colored our visit to the studio from the outset.
Arriving at the gallery, the first thing one notices is the surprising collection of buildings. While primarily known for his furniture designs, George’s career began in architecture, and he personally designed and built all of the buildings on the site. His wide range of influences and ideas can easily be seen in their eclectic nature. They all exhibit a Japanese feeling, some more explicitly than others. We were greeted by the third generation of Nakashimas in the business, Satoru and Soomi Amagasu. Satoru, or Ru, as he goes by, was our guide for the tour. We walked out onto the grounds, which were landscaped in a somewhat Japanese fashion. Directly outside the office showroom is a small koi pond and ornamental cherry tree. Of course, since it is December, neither the koi, nor the tree, were very active. Despite this, the season and cold weather did not detract from the beauty of our surroundings, which inspired George to choose this site for his workshop when he was just starting out.
Our first stop was the wood storage barn. I found it amusing that George was a bit of a hoarder when it came to wood, as many of the examples present in the building were pieces that George had bought as much as 50 years ago! Among the examples collected are rare specimens from England, Iran, and Africa, which with today’s import bans would probably be impossible to get otherwise. This barn seemed appropriate for the size of the company, but then Ru led us to another wood storage building, even larger than the first! Ru explained that when a client comes to them with an idea for a piece, they ususally select three or four woods that they think might appeal to the customer and are suitable for the project.
Our next stop was the Reception House, in my opinion the best part of the tour. Its very Japanese, which is always a plus, even though it means you have to take off your shoes. All the woodwork inside is matched with the furniture, which includes a beautiful dark walnut table, and a set of ottomans that were originally destined for Nelson Rockefeller’s house. Ru said that Rockefeller’s wife thought the fabric wasn’t Chinese enough. That was her loss, because the ottomans look great in Nakashima’s Reception House. Off to the side is a tea room with a tokonoma, which they use for a special guest bedroom on occasion. On the opposite side is a beautiful mosaic Japanese-style bathroom, which George built for his wife, Marion, who suffered from arthritis. Both the bathroom and main room feature large windows that look out over the hill and provide a stunning view of the property. The house is full of character, and those neat little touches that can only come from designer and architect being the same person.
We next passed by the Pool House (and pool) on the way to the Arts Building. The Arts Building has an amazing hyperbolic paraboloid roof, which is self-supporting, a full glass-walled loft area, cantilevered stairs, AND a mural by Ben Shahn. Nakashima built the Arts Building to house the work of Shahn, who was a close friend. Unfortunately, Shahn died shortly after it was completed, and today it is used for Nakashima Foundation for Peace events. Also housed in the building is a Shahn sketch of George Nakashima’s hands. We carefully made our way up the cantilevered stairs to admire the view from the glass walls and to examine the unique roof. Again, in today’s regulatory climate, experimental buildings like these would probably never be approved by local planning boards, making this building extremely special as well.
Next we made a quick stop in the Chair Workshop. It was reached by a charming little arched concrete bridge, another Japanese feature. The workshop looks out on the same view as the Reception House. Its large windows provide a lot of natural light, and, as Ru mentioned, frames the inspiring view that made George Nakashima choose this site. Opposite from the Chair Workshop is the Conoid Studio. Inside, we found Mira and Kevin Nakashima, George’s children, talking with some clients. The Conoid Studio features a wavy roof, supported by two arches at either end. George’s original desk remains in this building. This building also serves as a showroom, with several chairs, sofas, and even a Nakashima carpet on display. In a corner of the room, almost arranged like a firepit, are a number of strangely shaped wood chunks. When I asked Ru what these were for, he said they will become lamps. He showed me a lamp that George made from a piece of wood he brought from Minidoka in Idaho. The wood looked rather distressed and stringy, and is apparently called ‘bitterbrush.’ The lamp was a moving reminder of the trials many Japanese-Americans and their families went through in World War II. The Conoid Studio also housed another one of my favorite pieces, the Concordia chair, made especially for musicians. Being a musician myself, I found that the chair was designed to put the body in excellent posture, yet still felt comfortable and easy to sit on. Any serious musician needs one!
Everyone had a wonderful time during our trip, and we highly recommend you pay a visit to this interesting and beautiful piece of American history. In 2008, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2014 was made a National Historic Landmark. In 2014, the studio was recognized internationally by being placed on the World Monuments Watch List, to further promote the ongoing preservation both of George Nakashima’s architectural legacy, and his craft traditions. Visiting hours are from 1pm-4:30pm on Saturdays. Guided group tours are available through prior appointment between April and October. For more information, please go to the George Nakashima Woodworker S.A. website. Give them a call at 215-862-2272, or reach out via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Nakashima Foundation for Peace, please visit their website here.