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George Nakashima papers


Held at: James A. Michener Art Museum Archives [Contact Us]138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA, 18901

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the James A. Michener Art Museum Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

George Nakashima (1905-1990) was an American architect and furniture designer and maker, often referred to as one of the fathers of the American craft movement. After being interned during World War II, Nakashima moved to New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania and set up a woodworking studio. Between the 1950s and 1980s, Nakashima's furniture was in high demand; he had exhibitions all over the world and pieces were purchased and displayed in museums.

George Katsutoshi Nakashima (1905-1990), was born in 1905 in Spokane, Washington, the son of Japanese immigrants, Katsuharu and Suzu (Thoma) Nakashima. Nakashima grew up in Seattle and received a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of Washington in 1929. While at the University of Washington, he received a scholarship for one year of study at L'Ecole Americaine des Beaux Arts outside of Paris, France, where he received the Prix Fontainebleau in 1928. He earned a master's degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930. Soon after, Nakashima was hired to paint murals at the New York State capitol building in Albany, NY. Nakashima also worked as an architectural designer and mural painter for Long Island State Park Commission. Due to the Great Depression, Nakashima lost his job. He traveled to Paris, France and spent a year there before traveling to North Africa and Japan. In 1933, Nakashima accepted a position in the architectural offices of Antonin Raymond in Tokyo, Japan. Raymond's company was hired to construct a dormitory in an ashram in Pondicherry, India and Nakashima moved there temporarily, circa 1937-1939, as the on-site architect and project manager. This building was the first reinforced concrete building constructed in India. Nakashima became a disciple of the Hindu yogi Sri Aurobindo and received the Sanskrit name, Sundarananda, meaning "one who delights in beauty."

Nakashima returned to Tokyo in the late 1930s, but returned to the United States in 1940 after Raymond closed his offices due to impending war. In 1941, Nakashima married Marion "Violet" Sumire Okajima (1912-2004), an American whom he had met while she was teaching in Tokyo. Marion was born in Seattle, Washington, but had moved with her family to Los Angeles, California in 1930. George and Marion moved to Seattle, where he opened a furniture workshop. In 1942, George, Marion, and their infant daughter Mira were placed in an internment camp in Minidoka, Idaho. In 1943, Antonin Raymond, now living in New Hope, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, sponsored the Nakashimas' release from the internment camp in order to work on his farm. The Nakashimas moved to New Hope, where George eventually designed and built their home and his woodworking studio.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, Nakashima's furniture was in high demand; he had exhibitions all over the world, and pieces were purchased and displayed in museums. Nakashima preferred to create his hand-crafted furniture for individual commissions, but he did create two commercial lines: the "Straight Chair" carried by Knoll since 1946 and the Shaker-inspired "Origins" collection for Widdicomb-Mueller in the 1950s. In 1973, Nelson Rockefeller gave Nakashima his single largest commission: a 200-piece suite for his suburban New York estate. In the 1970s and 1980s Nakashima's New Hope, PA woodworking studio expanded and his daughter Mira joined on the design side of the business, while his son Kevin became involved in the office operations.

Nakashima received several awards from the American Institute of Architects and other institutions. In 1983, he received the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor and Government of Japan in recognition of the cultural exchange generated by the shows he produced in Japan from 1968 to 1988. In 1989 Nakashima became the first artist presented in a series of America's Living National Treasures exhibitions; his last show in the U.S., the retrospective "Full Circle" opened at the American Craft Museum in New York. This show came to New Hope, PA shortly before Nakashima received his final award, Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus, from the University of Washington one week prior to his death in June 1990.

Since her father's death in 1990 Mira Nakashima-Yarnall has extended the tradition of the George Nakashima Studio not only by producing the classic and traditional lines, but by continuing the evolution of new design solutions by way of her new line, the Keisho Collection. In Japanese, keisho translates as continuance or succession. Through this line, Mira preserves the methods and techniques embraced by her father.

The "Altars of Peace" is a project that George Nakashima started in the 1980s. He wished to create these pieces as symbols of peace and place one on each of the seven continents. The first altar, known as the Altar for Peace, was installed in 1986 in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, New York. This was the only installation Nakashima would live to see. After his death, the George Nakashima Foundation for Peace took on the responsibility of seeing through Nakashima's original vision. The second altar, known as a "sacred peace table" was installed in 1996 in Auroville, India. A third sacred peace table was dedicated in Moscow, Russia in 2001. As of 2016, a fourth sacred peace table is planned to be installed in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.

Bibliography: "Nakashima Foundation For Peace." Accessed September 15, 2016. "Philosophy." Accessed September 15, 2016.

National Park Service. "George Nakashima Woodworker Complex." Accessed September 15, 2016.

R & Company. "George Nakashima: Biography." Accessed September 15, 2016.

George Nakashima papers, circa 1907-2000s, consist of letters, business records, sketches, handwritten notes, architectural drawings, photographs, catalogs, awards, subject files, printed material relating mostly to Nakashima's work as a furniture designer, artwork from Nakashima's personal collection, tools, and other materials documenting Nakashima's professional and personal life. There are also materials from his daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, related to her work and her book about her father. There is a small amount of materials from George Nakashima's sister-in-law, Thelma Shizuko Okajima. Additions to this collection are expected over time.

Photographs, circa 1910s-2000s, consist of family photographs that include images of George (youth and adulthood), George's parents, Marion Okajima Nakashima, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, George's grandchildren, and other family members; family photograph albums, 1920-1980s; images from the War Relocation Authority, 1945, including images of George with his family; images of the Nakashima home and grounds in New Hope, PA; professional portraits of George Nakashima; portraits, images of George holding tools or in his workshop, and other photographs used for publications or publicity materials; a professionally compiled album of photographs of George's home and workshop; albums, loose photographs, slides, and transparencies of George's furniture and other work, including the Peace Altar; slides used during lectures; images of people at Nakashima exhibitions; and other images.

There is a large portion of Nakashima's business and personal correspondence, circa 1928-1990, including letters from George's time in India (1936-1939), letters between George and his wife (1938-1940s), and various other letters. There are also some sympathy letters to Mira after George's death in 1990 and correspondence about Nakashima's work and exhibitions, circa 1990s-2000s.

George Nakashima business records, 1945-1994, include documents from Nakashima's studio pertaining to woodworking and cabinet making supply companies, orders, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania safety records, donations, inventories, price lists, invoices for lumber and other materials, receipts, and payroll files.

There are materials related to exhibits featuring Nakashima's work (during his lifetime and after his death), including posters, advertisements, catalogs, records, and other materials.

There is also a portion of materials related to George Nakashima's memoir The Soul of a Tree, including manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, original drawings, and other materials. In the richly illustrated The Soul of a Tree, published by Kodansha in 1981, Nakashima provides an intimate view of his personal history, artistry and philosophy of giving the trees he reveres "a second life."

There are many publicity articles, newspaper clippings, tear sheets, and other published materials about Nakashima and his work, 1940s-2000s. There are more of these materials located in Mira Nakashima-Yarnall's papers about her book.

There are several original artworks from Nakashima's personal art collection, including paintings, prints, drawings, pastels, and watercolors from various artists, including Japanese and Bucks County artists. There are also drawings, sketches, and other related materials from George Nakashima, including three sketchbooks covering the period 1941 to 1979; original sketches, negatives, handwritten copy and mock-up for Nakashima's 1973 catalogue designed by Quentin Fiore; and designs and drawings of the Nakashima home and workshop in New Hope, PA.

Also in the collection are George Nakashima's baptism certificate and diplomas; a scrapbook, 1939-1940, with newspaper clippings from an English language Japanese newspaper documenting Japanese life just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Nakashima's writings (circa 1930s-1989); materials related to Nakashima's work for Knoll; catalogs and materials related to catalogs featuring Nakashima's work, including photographs and layout designs; sketches of Mira's house; Nakashima Christmas cards; awards and gifts presented to Nakashima; an unidentified audiocassette; and other materials.

Mira Nakashima-Yarnall materials include slides, research notes, correspondence, and book research files, including biographical and family history research about George Nakashima, relating to Nature, Form and Spirit, a book about her father, his work, and his legacy that was published in 2003. There is also correspondence, catalog materials, and other documents pertaining to Mira's work with the George Nakashima Studio.

Materials from Thelma Shizuko Okajima include photographs and family papers. There are some materials related to her sister, Marion Okajima Nakashima, including graduation programs and yearbooks.

A more detailed finding aid, biographical note, or inventory for this collection may be available on-site.

Multiple gifts from Kevin Nakashima and Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, 2009-2013

Summary descriptive information on this collection was compiled in 2014-2016 as part of a project conducted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to make better known and more accessible the largely hidden collections of small, primarily volunteer run repositories in the Philadelphia area. The Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories (HCI-PSAR) was funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

This is a preliminary finding aid. No physical processing, rehousing, reorganizing, or folder listing was accomplished during the HCI-PSAR project.

In some cases, more detailed inventories or finding aids may be available on-site at the repository where this collection is held; please contact James A. Michener Art Museum Archives directly for more information.

James A. Michener Art Museum Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Sarah Leu and Anastasia Matijkiw through the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories using information provided by the James A. Michener Art Museum Archives
This preliminary finding aid was created as part of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's Hidden Collections Initiative for Pennsylvania Small Archival Repositories. The HCI-PSAR project was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
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