This fall, Freeman’s is proud to present several distinguished collections of furniture by one of Pennsylvania’s most celebrated craftsmen, the designer and architect, George Nakashima. Born to Japanese immigrants in 1905, he grew up in Spokane, attended the University of Washington, changing his course of study from forestry to architecture, and later pursued a scholarship to M.I.T. Work and travel took Nakashima from Paris to Tokyo where he was eventually employed with the architect, Antonin Raymond, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Nakashima worked with Raymond’s office on Golconde, a dormitory for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, India. In 1940, he returned to the United States, settling in Seattle, and with the outbreak of World War II, he was forced to relocate with his family to an internment camp in Idaho. It was there he met a Japanese woodworker, Gentaro Hikogawa, who taught him more about traditional Japanese carpentry methods. Raymond sponsored his release from the camp in 1943 and invited Nakashima to work on his New Hope, Pennsylvania, farm. After a year, Nakashima moved to a small stone cottage there on Aquetong Road. Over the years, the Nakashima compound grew to include lumber sheds, a pool house, showroom, workshop, finishing room, chair department, and the Conoid Studio—all designed and built in part by Nakashima himself. Today, the family legacy is maintained by his daughter, Mira, who oversees the design and production of her company, George Nakashima Woodworker, and the Foundation for Peace.
Among the works from the studio of George Nakashima in Freeman’s November 12th Pennsylvania Sale will be examples from the collection of the late Peter Engelmann of Charlottesville, Virginia. Born in Germany, Engelmann studied at Robert College in Istanbul, and later received his Master’s degree in Civil Engineering from M.I.T. He spent the majority of his professional career employed by the World Bank as a civil engineer engaged in the planning and design of urban and transportation projects. Engelmann’s extensive travels took him to Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, exposing him to art and design that would later inform his own foray into the art world. His paintings reflect an engineer’s sensibility, rendering geometric forms on canvas in a manner reminiscent of the surveying and mapping in which he was engaged during his career.
The Engelmanns began purchasing furniture from George Nakashima in 1967 with a commission for an extraordinary coffee table. Featuring a large walnut slab and a single butterfly joint in rosewood, the natural outline of the top is reminiscent of the jagged angles of Engelmann’s own paintings, perhaps reflecting his influence on the commission. At seventy-five by thirty-two inches, the table is among the larger examples of this form executed by Nakashima. Among the later works the Englemanns ordered from the Nakashima Studios--and also included in the Pennsylvania Sale—are a rocker and lounge chair with Nakashima’s signature, “free-edge” arm, and an unusual Conoid cushion chair with arms, one of only a dozen or so made; this example executed under the direction of Mira Nakashima in 2004.
Additional pieces of furniture by Nakashima Studios to be offered in the Pennsylvania Sale include a Minguren I coffee table from the collection of an original Bucks County owner, with an estimate of $8,000-12,000, and a hanging wall cabinet purchased from George Nakashima, circa 1956, from the Rittenhouse Square home of the original owner, estimated at $5,000-7,000.
Speaking about her father, Mira Nakashima has written, “What he did embodied a message to all modern societies that we must constantly remember the eternal in all that we do.” Toward that end, George Nakashima’s furniture was not merely the convergence of form and function, but embodied the spiritual tenants of the Mingei Movement, founded by Soetsu Yanagi. The movement was to Japan what the Arts and Crafts Movement represented to the West: an attempt to restore craft traditions and man’s place in the natural world in contrast to the growing specter of an impersonal and dehumanizing machine world.