Back to all films

George Nakashima, Woodworker

A film by John Nakashima

He was a 1930s seeker who started out as a Modern architect.

George Nakashima (1905 – 1990) was on a quest to find his “reason for being” that lasted into his mid-thirties on the eve of WWII. His search took him to extended experiences in Paris, then Japan, then India, where he found what he was looking for. It came from the ideas of a great philosopher/guru, Sri Aurobindo. What happened next? How does a life of ideas, aesthetics, and spiritual realization become the raw materials for a lifetime of creating functional, innovative woodworking? George used what he found.

George Nakashima, my uncle, became one of the 20th century’s most esteemed and unique designer-woodworkers. The craftsmanship of woodworking was first introduced to George by watching the daiku, the Japanese master carpenters at work. His deep respect and love for trees began as a teenager in the wilderness of the Olympic Peninsula. His special feeling for trees deepened a hundred-fold by studying the aesthetics and culture of Japan, including the beliefs of Shintoism and Buddhism. George wrote, “A mature tree has witnessed much… It is a moving experience to walk through the forest alone, to recognize each tree as a divine body, to pass in its presence day after day with a growing understanding.”

He is known for wood furniture made one at a time during an almost fifty year timespan. His pieces are distinctively different from any of his peers. He grew a small shop with deeply talented woodworkers. 16 years after his death, his work and ideas are more popular than ever. In his designs are syntheses of influences from his journeys, even Early American, combined with his own strong, nuanced creativity.

He is well known for his designs that follow nature – especially on his wood slab tabletops. He became known for his use of wood that many mills and woodworkers would reject. He sought after the natural ‘”imperfections” in trees caused by the harshness of nature and the tree’s natural and sometimes surprising patterns of growth. He wanted trees that had the wounds that healed over, year after year of storms and ice and winds. When he could get to it, the root wood below ground level often yielded even richer graining. After the choice of trees, the sawing of the tree into boards became the next most crucial stage. George couldn’t say it often enough that milling trees was like diamond cutting, knowing from experience how to position the tree to cut and reveal in the way he wanted the wood grain, the figure. The wide areas where two or three major branches grew from the main trunk yielded the widest boards and may have contained “extravagant figuring.” Then there are the unexplained outgrowths on trees called burls, sometimes yielding remarkable patterns of “eyes.” He had his trees milled to include the bark edge, which would come to be known as a “free edge.”

Atypical even among the unorthodoxy of mid-century modern designers, George Nakashima was a seminal woodworker who changed woodworking and the way people look at wood. He stubbornly worked exclusively with solid woods at a time when his well-known contemporaries embraced modern materials – plywood, tubular steel, glass, molded fiberglass. His works, also well known, never fit neatly into any classification or as part of a movement. Others might try to place him in a movement, but George would not agree.

This 90-minute documentary is being produced and edited by his nephew, John Nakashima, who has been a PBS producer in West Virginia for over 40 years. He has been recognized through many awards, including five regional Emmys for his documentary producing and editing. George Nakashima, Woodworker is his first major independent production. The documentary is a chronological story of one of the most compelling seeker’s journeys, taking the audience to special places and times that few remember today. It continues with George returning to America, just in time to for him and his new family to be incarcerated along with the other 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry. The documentary traces how George began again with literally nothing and within a year, talked with MOMA about someday showing his work there. Several years after that he and his work had appeared in many of the largest circulation magazines in America. George was successful.

At the end of his life he was doing what many considered his best work. George divorced himself from anything that could be called fashion. He wrote, “There is actually no ‘modern’ and no ‘traditional,’ but rather honesty and dishonesty of concept… Whatever styles and forms we have should evolve from the methods and materials used.”

This comprehensive documentary began production after his death, so George’s voice includes interviews on video, audiotape, correspondence, transcribed oral histories, his autobiography Soul of a Tree and other writings. New footage was shot for this documentary in the U.S., Japan and India with Sony HD video cameras interviews with his family, historians, critics, woodworkers, and associates. Photographed on Super16mm film and large sensor video camera are the workshops, showrooms, and residences in the Nakashima compound, major collectors’ homes, Nakashima woodworkers creating furniture, and the best examples of his work including some of his most historic works.

The documentary is targeted for national distribution on PBS stations.

Associated Members

John Nakashima, Director

SEE MEMBER PROFILE