Last updated: May 9, 2019
The George Nakashima Woodworker Complex, located in New Hope, Pennsylvania, was the home of the internationally renowned furniture designer and architect George Nakashima. The 12 acre complex has 21 buildings, all designed by Nakashima. The assortment of buildings, scattered across a wooded forest and open lawns, served as Nakashima's home and workspace until his death in 1990. Nakashima is recognized as one of America's most eminent furniture designer-craftsman and his style of "organic naturalism" can be seen in the buildings, landscape, and furniture located in the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex.
George Nakashima was born in 1905, in Spokane Washington, to Japanese immigrants Katsuharu and Suzu Thoma Nakashima. Both of his parents came from samurai families and this heritage influenced Nakashima's work ethic. He was accepted to the University of Washington and was given a one-year scholarship in 1928, to study architecture in Paris at the École Americaine des Beaux-Arts in Fountainebleu. He received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in architecture from Washington in 1929, and a Master's Degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston in 1930. After graduating from MIT, Nakashima was hired by the Richard Brooks Studio in New York to paint murals for the New York state capitol building in Albany. A year later, the Long Island State Park Commission hired him to paint murals and design buildings.
After losing his job due to the Great Depression, Nakashima purchased an around-the-world steamship ticket and made his way to Paris, where he lived for the next year. While there, he made weekly visits to observe the construction of renowned Modernist architect Le Corbusier's highly influential Pavillion Suisse, built in the new International Style. The International Style had developed in Europe and the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s and was characterized by a clean, rectilinear architectural style that had no ornamentation or decoration and emphasized geometric shapes. The Pavillion Suisse and the International Style would have a profound impact on Nakashima's design aesthetic.
Nakashima spent a year in Paris before going on to North Africa and Japan. In Japan, he worked for Antonin Raymond, who had collaborated with Frank Lloyd Wright on the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo and had set up an architectural office in Tokyo after completion of the project. While in Japan, Nakashima traveled with his coworker Junzo Yoshimura visiting architectural monuments, shrines, and temples, and attending tea ceremonies and festivals. These experiences gave Nakashima a deep appreciation for Japanese cultural and architectural traditions which was evident in his later work.
In 1936, Raymond sent Nakashima to be the onsite architect for the construction of a dormitory at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo in Pondicherry, India. The dormitory was constructed in the International Style and was the first reinforced concrete building in the country. It was during this time that Nakashima began to explore furniture design and craftsmanship which would eventually become the focus of his life's work.
With the world on the verge of war, Raymond closed his offices in Japan and moved back to the U.S. Nakashima and his fiancée Marion Okajima, an American he had met while she was teaching English in Japan, returned soon after, marrying in 1941 and settling in Seattle, Washington. Nakashima started working for architect Ray Morin and also began to make furniture, setting up a small studio in the basement of the Maryknoll Boys' Club. His first privately-commissioned collection of handcrafted furniture was for cosmetics executive Andre Ligne.
The start of World War II cut short Nakashima's forays into furniture making. Shortly after the U.S. entered the war, American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were evacuated and moved to relocation centers around the country. George and Marion, along with their infant daughter Mira, were relocated in 1942, to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. While at Minidoka, Nakashima met Japanese carpenter Gentauro Hikogawa, who taught him the techniques of traditional Japanese woodworking. In 1943, William Emerson, the former Dean of the MIT School of Architecture, contacted Antonin Raymond, and asked if he would petition for the release of the Nakashima family from Minidoka. Raymond vouched for the Nakashima family and brought them to live on his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Because the War Relocation Authority would only allow Nakashima's release from Minidoka for agricultural farm work, he worked on his furniture designs in the evenings. He was encouraged and actively facilitated in this by Antonin and his wife Noemi who gave him the former milk house on the farm to use as his workshop.
After being released from supervised sponsorship on the Raymond's farm, George and Marion rented a house nearby, eventually purchasing three acres of land from their landlord where, in 1946, Nakashima designed and built a workshop and house. From 1946 to 1954, the workshop and the family home were the only buildings on the property. As both Nakashima's family and his company grew, so did the Complex. The Showroom, Finishing Department, Chair Department, and the Conoid Studio were built in the 1950s, with Japanese motifs integrated into their designs. After the birth of his son Kevin in 1958, Nakashima continued to expand the Complex, acquiring more land and designing and constructing more buildings. In the 1960s and 1970s he added, among other buildings, the Reception House, the Pool House, the Cloister, and the Arts Building. Nakashima designed all of the buildings on the property and supervised their construction.
The buildings that comprise the George Nakashima Woodworker Complex are in the International Style infused with elements of traditional Japanese architecture. The buildings combine natural materials including local stone, white stucco walls, and simple wood trim to create asymmetrical designs that feature exposed framing, ribbon windows, glass walls in the living area, and an open floor plan. Just like George Nakashima's juxtaposition of family and manufacturing, his designing vision juxtaposed "architecture, furniture, and landscape" all within a natural environment. All of the buildings and structures in the complex are examples of Nakashima's unique legacy of craftsmanship and design excellence.
George Nakashima was one of the preeminent furniture designer-craftsmen in the U.S., and a significant force within the American Craft movement of the mid-20th century. This movement rejected the mass-production of industrialization while at the same time embracing Modern styles and ideas that were international in scope. Influenced by spirituality and nature, Nakashima's signature features incorporated techniques intended to enhance the impact of wood's natural beauty. George Nakashima passed away in 1990, and today the complex is owned and operated by the Nakashima family. The George Nakashima Studio continues to produce his furniture designs while extending his traditions and aesthetics and preserving his methods and techniques through new designs created by his daughter Mira.
The George Nakashima Woodworker Complex, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 1847 Aquetong Rd., New Hope, PA. For more information, visit the George Nakashima Woodworker website