Going underground

The deep, rich movements, which produced the Dipylon vase, the Doric column, the Chartres cathedral, the Katsura Detached Palace, all were significant in their youthful vigor and simple creativity. May we return to that spirit. It is not man’s prerogative to destroy himself. We can only believe in the warm golden light in darkness.

Since I am a woodworker, the practical aspects interest me primarily. The materials used, the utility of an object, the forms developed are vital. The necessary skills and the resultant beauty must be there. Arts and Crafts should be based on pure truth, taking materials and techniques from the past to synthesize with the present. We should be content to work on a small scale and integrally with nature and not violate it.

In a personal way my family and I have gone underground, since we have little relationship to contemporary mores, institutions, economy, or systems. Ours is a search for pure truth in the most realistic ways—the making of things.

There was no other way for me but to go alone, secure with my family, placing stone upon stone, seeking kinship with each piece of wood, eventually creating an inward mood of space, then bit by bit finding peace and joy in the shaping of timber into objects of utility and perhaps, when nature smiles, beauty.

George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree (1987), p. 194

Descended from a samurai and a graduate of MIT, it’s hard to square George Nakashima’s rhetoric with the actuality of his achievements. Most of his pieces sell for six figure sums, and are shipped around the globe. This is hardly the small scale local operation he speaks so glowingly about. Yes, his family operates outside of contemporary mores in the sense of its inclusion inside the stratospheric orbit of high dollar collectors, foundations and museums. But somehow, when you read his book you don’t expect that it fronts for such a bourgeois enterprise; the rhetoric is just the opposite.

I’m starting to do more reading in this direction because it seems to me to be a fate common to the explosion in folk arts in the early twentieth century. Gustav Stickley took Morris’s utopian rhetoric and created a huge business empire that went bust; scratch the surface of any of the utopian communities and there is a finely tuned capitalist machine underneath. The sad fact is that not simply that these enterprises are “artisanal capitalism,” but that frequently they are exploitative, oppressive, and imperialist. I don’t want to always reduce things to these terms, but when you’re preaching to the “common man” practices and products that no common man can afford, there’s a rupture.

The narrative always goes something like this: our current age is decadent and we’ve lost the good things in life. We must reject all contemporary forms and revert to some sort of golden age model to base our decisions upon. There’s always an aristocratic overtone, an implication that aristocratic tastes can refine our being if we allow ourselves to be cultivated. We’re supposed to be inspired by are the rude crafts of the ordinary folks, but of course the ordinary folks just aren’t aware of what’s really good— they need the rich consumer to validate them.

I did some research on the Nakashima family and found that yes, Mira still maintains the family business employing about 12 people. The eldest grandchild is a partner in a different shop, and I found a newspaper story from 1990 about another grandchild, who said that the family had gone through a period of crisis when the older generation, including George and his original helpers, died. She was at that time returning to the ashram in India where George found his original insights. I’m not sure if she returned to the firm.

I don’t know why I didn’t take too much note of the fact that the ashram in Pondicherry where Nakashima found his spiritual awakening was also host to President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, which speaks to the elite nature of his spiritual heritage. It’s far easier to renounce culture when you have the means to do so.

Does this erode the populist logic of these craft theories? I suppose it does, and I’m trying to figure out how a coherent approach to tools and materials might be wrought after addressing the gaps left by what they chose not to say. I’m not interested in animism— wood spirits and that sort of thing— but I do believe that their can be such a thing as truth in materials.

One man’s craft is another’s commodity

“Fast modern contemporary furniture, I want no part of it. People wanting to express themselves, it’s just simply crap. That’s what’s causing all the ills of our society, individualism with nothing to express. You tear your guts out to express yourself and it ends up in frustration and a terrible environment…. (Wood is) a gift we should treasure and use in the most logical and beautiful way, and personal expression is quite illegitimate. It’s an arrogant conceit, and we have too much conceit in our society.”

— George Nakashima interviewed by John Kelsey for the January/February 1979 issue of Fine Woodworking (Issue No. 14). 

cited by Chris Schwarz

I was taken aback by the misreadings and vitriol that occurred in the comments over at Lost Art Press regarding this quote. Comparing George Nakashima to Kanye? Really? It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme, but it’s what happens when American “rugged individualism” butts heads with eastern ideas of craft. The weird thing is, I was reading at the time about one of the fundamental Jainist tenets, aparigraha at the time that this tempest in a teapot was brewing.

This concept is found at the center of various yoga approaches as well, probably including the particular flavor embraced by Nakashima. It relates to the “simple living” reading I’ve been doing in a direct fashion, being the stricture against taking more than one needs, or wasting resources needlessly. Individualism, which frequently takes the form of “personal expression” can easily be termed unnecessary and a poor use of resources. Hoarding and showing off— as expressions of ego, are equally heinous under these ethical systems.

Of course Nakashima is a famous wood hoarder, as well as a craftsman with a highly individual signature style. He would dispute that though, claiming that he simply follows the spirit of the wood. One man’s individualism is another mans “truth to nature,” and one man’s rescuing of resources from decay and ruin is another man’s hoarding. It all depends on what angle you look at it from.

As the quote continues, it’s clear which side John Kelsey stands on:

Looking at a small table salvaged from a madly extravagant and extremely fragile burl, I see what he means: The wood is merely displayed, utterly simple. It is as if the tree had given away a part of itself and there it sits, without human intervention. We know that someone has sliced the stump into boards and saved this ruined piece from the firewood pile, cleaned it up and defined its edges, and given it a true, oiled surface. But this work does not intrude, there is no precious molding or delicate dovetail to announce the craftsman’s ego. The tabletop seems to have evolved directly from the material, as Nakashima says, it is probably the only thing that could have been done with such a piece of wood. (46)

That is of course the problem with taking quotes out of context; often, the explanation for the claims is just a line or two away in the remaining text. There’s an illustration of this table, but my PDF of the article isn’t really of sufficient resolution to do it justice. The table is described as an engineering problem:

Nonetheless, something is holding it off the ground, a base tucked well back and unobtrusive. It’s not a narly branch or root section (which Nakashima calls “gauche barbarisms”_, it’s a designed intersection of vertical slab and horizontal runner. I ask how this base evolved from the material and Nakashima explains that it is “almost purely an engineering job, it’s just to support the top and do it in a way that’s satisfying to me. I don’t mean that I’m beyond design, but I don’t design from the approach of art school, I design from the material.

The final passage is the most telling, though, and it closes out the article:

FWW: Are you working from a tradition, are you consciously part of a tradition?

Nakashima: Well, if I’m in a tradition it’s a mixture of early American and Japanese. I think I work very much in the Japanese idiom, the use of materials, the type of materials, but what we do also has roots in America.

FWW: You imply that aside from being a skilled craftsman and aside from knowing the material intimately and being able to design with it, there’s another dimension here.

Nakashima: Yeah, it’s a spiritual one, and I think it actually comes first. . .


I’m pretty certain that this dimension is actually primarily Indian; Nakashima spent time in Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Reading Nakashima’s book The Soul of a Tree, there’s a lot of “simple living” material in there as well, and attitudes towards tools. For example, he calls his approach to machinery “intermediate,” choosing a combination power tools and handwork, steadfastly choosing to market to a local community rather than a broader audience because he does not seem to be overly concerned with profit. His furniture may sell for millions these days, but it wasn’t created with a primarily economic intent. It’s really something when capitalists get ahold of scarce spiritual artifacts; the bidding goes up pretty quickly. It tends to pollute the ideas that originally birthed them.

The Fine Woodworking article is similar in the way it weaves the economic topics together. In a sidebar, Nakashima laments taking on workers to train them and having them leave for more lucrative work before he gets any advantage from their skill. He suggests that people who want to learn contact trade schools or go to countries that have apprenticeship systems rather than calling on him. But the last comment there is not about profit, but it is about wealth:

Skills are maybe the finest resource any nation can have, and we don’t have that in this country and that’s why things are getting so bad. This country prides itself on automobiles and can’t even make a decent automobile, a sad situation. Whereas if one has skills, one could make the slums bloom with no money at all, simply by work and skills. (42)

Money is only a small part of Nakashima’s world view, as it should be. It’s ludicrous to translate everything into that. Theories of work and skill are not commensurate with theories of labor and exchange.