Zen Modernism: The Furniture of George Nakashima

Exhibit at Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery: October 7 — November 5, 1994


Philadelphia, PA (July 1994)

The furniture of George Nakashima, rarely exhibited in significant quantity, will be featured at the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia this fall.

Though Moderne has always carried selected pieces of Nakashima furniture as part of its presentation of classic 20th century design, owner Robert Aibel has now been able to accumulate a large enough collection of his work to present a representative exhibit. All of the pieces have been gathered from private collectors and most will be for sale.

“Zen Modernism: The Furniture of George Nakashima” will display approximately 30 pieces of the master craftsman’s work, designed and produced by Nakashima between 1955 and 1974. Like all Nakashima work, the pieces are spiritually evocative as well as physically beautiful and functional.

Lovingly and with great respect, pieces of wood have been transformed into furniture, expressing the crafter’s reverence for trees and his intention to give those trees a second life through the work of his hands. Included are tables, chairs, sofas, a spectacular console and king-sized headboard. The exhibit and sale will be at Moderne, 111 N. Third Street, Philadelphia from Friday, October 7 through Saturday, November 5, 1994.

“Zen Modernism” will open on the “First Friday” of October, the kick-off of the 1994-95 season of popular monthly Open House evenings in Old City, Philadelphia’s up and coming Gallery District. The exhibit also coincides with the exhibition “Japanese Design: A Survey Since 1950” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is part of the citywide celebration of Japanese design organized by Collab, the Museum’s group of design professionals dedicated to 20th Century decorative arts.

“George Nakashima synthesized Eastern philosophies and East-West design and technology in a unique and distinctively modern, yet timeless form,” says Robert Aibel. “Modernism, naturalism and pantheism are intertwined in a completely original aesthetic. I have felt strongly about Nakashima’s work for many years. It is a privilege to be able to exhibit it at Moderne.”

Nakashima’s work was described with particular appreciation in an award from the American Institute of Architects: “Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, naturalness and organic beauty found expression in his furniture. Clean lines, well-selected materials and natural, hand-rubbed oil finish distinguish his product. Many have found in his furniture an echo of the austere early Pennsylvania craftsmanship of the Shakers.”

The son of Japanese-born parents, he was highly educated and trained as an architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was imprisoned with thousands of other Japanese-Americans. In 1943, the architect Antonin Raymond arranged for him to move to New Hope, PA, where Nakashima spent the rest of his life “in deep apprenticeship,” learning from “the noble trees.”

Though he was internationally renown and the recipient of many prestigious awards, he refused to call himself an artist, but instead saw himself as a craftsman. When he died in 1990, Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, said, “George Nakashima is a national treasure. He has an extraordinary feeling for wood and all its fantastic variations.”

This reverential “feeling for wood” is the signature of Nakashima’s work. He often spoke about giving a “second life” and about searching to find expressions that were already in the trees, to find “the best possible use” for these “oldest living inhabitants of earth.” And to do this with integrity.

“For as long as I can remember I’ve always felt a closeness to wood and nature,” he said. “In Japan there is a reverence for wood and a gentleness towards the nature that we don’t have here in the West.” Through his approach to nature and his belief in the life of the spirit, Nakashima was able to see and draw out the most interesting characteristics of individual trees, to create furniture and environments that he called “lyric,” and that others called American classics.

Many articles have been written about Nakashima and a book titled George Nakashima: Full Circle was produced for the 1989 exhibit of his work at the American Craft Museum in New York. His own writing is published as The Soul of a Tree and his furniture is represented in numerous museum collection. Today his work is being carried forward by his daughter Mira, son Kevin, and widow Marion, who still live in Bucks County near New Hope.

The Moderne Gallery is nationally known among designers, architects, collectors and museums for its top quality French and American Art Deco and Moderne decorative arts, and for its special presentations of Classic and unusual 20th century design.

The Moderne Gallery is located at 111 N. Third Street in the Old City section of Philadelphia. Hours are 11 AM to 6 PM Tuesday through Saturday, and by appointment. For further information, call 215-923-8536.

Photos available on request.
Contact Resnick Communications at 215-977-7383