George Nakashima’s furniture sells best when its edges meander. This Japanese-American woodworker, who ran a studio in New Hope, Pa., from 1946 until his death in 1990, was famous for not sanding away knots and fissures he found on walnut or redwood slabs.
But before he developed that signature, he drew on his original training as an architect and created almost entirely rectilinear modernist pieces. An exhibition opening on Friday at Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, “Early Furniture by George Nakashima, 1936-1956: The Architect Designs,” shows asymmetry and intentional flaws just starting to creep into his work.
Nakashima, who earned an architecture degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
in 1930, first worked at architects’ offices in Japan, then set up a furniture workshop in Seattle. The business was short-lived: during World War II, his family was forced into an internment camp in Idaho and only released after a former boss, the architect Antonin Raymond, sponsored them and moved them to New Hope. Nakashima soon began collecting gnarled boards that local cabinetmakers rejected and persuading clients to preserve the natural contours.
Moderne’s exhibition has about 50 pieces, dating back to a 1936 chair with sea grass woven around peeled cedar branches. By 1948, Nakashima had carved a bitterbrush twig into a drawer handle for a walnut desk ($25,000 at Moderne), and in 1956 he built two mismatched legs for a walnut coffee table with burn marks and gouges ($24,500).
Moderne’s prices for its pre-1956 works range from $3,500 for a 1951 walnut chair with a cantilevered seat to $100,000 for a 1951 walnut wall cabinet mounted on burl poles. The gallery is also displaying about 20 post-1950s objects, at prices up to $125,000.
“Those are more of the dramatic pieces people recognize, more of the bells and whistles,” said Robert Aibel, Moderne Gallery's owner.