When I first saw this console by the Japanese-American master woodworker and furniture maker, George Nakashima, I was, and still am, struck by the wonderful twelve-foot long expanse of wood that is the console top. It seems to be a celebration of the material, of the tree it came from—a warm-toned surface with a silky, nuanced grain and soft contoured edges, a surface that invites you to look, study, touch and run your hand along to feel it, even to tap it, hear it.
Trained as an architect, Nakashima traveled and worked abroad, spending time in France, North Africa, Japan, and India, before returning to the United States in 1940. He began teaching woodworking while making his own furniture. During World War II, Nakashima was confined to an internment camp, where he met Gentaro Hikogawa, who trained him in traditional Japanese carpentry techniques. In 1943, after a former employer sponsored his release, Nakashima settled in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and eventually started a studio. There, drawing on Japanese design and woodworking practices along with his knowledge of Modernist style, he created a body of work significant to American postwar design.
Nakashima is known for his reverence for materials; he had great respect for wood, nature, and spirituality, which were central elements of his philosophy. He said “We work this material to fulfill the yearning of nature to find destiny, to give this absolute inanimate object a second life, to release its richness…to read its history in life.”[i] He believed that wood was alive, so constantly reacting, always influenced by weather and other conditions. Each piece of wood that he incorporated into a piece of furniture needed to be understood so that it would function properly within the piece.
The console now in Cooper-Hewitt’s collection started as a piece commissioned in 1958 by the donor and her husband for their home. Nakashima worked with them to design this capacious storage unit, and his notes are still clear on his design drawing, which the Museum acquired with the console.
Drawing: Design for Sideboard. George Nakashima,1958.Graphite on cream paper, 15 x 22.8 cm (5 7/8 in. x 9 in.). 2006-18-2.
The proportions are long and low, helping to make the piece inviting rather than monumental. The simple form puts emphasis on the materials, walnut wood and light-colored contrasting pandana cloth behind the vertical elements of the simple sliding panel doors. After more than fifty years, the piece still draws the viewer in to enjoy the natural materials on many levels.
[i] Moonan, Wendy. “Antiques: A Reverence for Wood and Nature,” New York Times, November 7, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/07/books/antiques-a-reverence-for-wood-and-nature.html.