5/2/2024: Nakashima Legacy Includes “Precious Species”: The American Black Walnut

Photo by Jack Rosen

Nakashima Legacy Includes “Precious Species”: The American Black Walnut
by Elizabeth Jordan

We honor George Nakashima (1905–1990), whose life’s work continues at the Nakashima compound neighboring the Preserve, during Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“We are left in awe by the nobility of a tree.” – George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree

If you’ve ever had a walnut drop on your car (or your head, like one of our unlucky volunteers), you may have had a few choice words for the American black walnut (Juglans nigra), and “precious” wasn’t one of them. Yet this native hardwood was treasured by renowned woodworker George Nakashima and is much valued by Nakashima Woodworkers today.

Eagle Scout, Architect, Woodworker

David Long, archivist at Nakashima Woodworkers, tells of Nakashima’s remarkable life, “George grew up in Washington State, the son of Japanese immigrants. An Eagle Scout, he loved the outdoors and planned to earn a degree in forestry, but his creative side prevailed and led him to architecture.” Nakashima first worked for Antonin Raymond in Japan, described by Long as, “the most important architect you’ve never heard of.” But his career path veered in the late 1930s after he viewed a Frank Lloyd Wright building under construction. Long imagines a disenchanted Nakashima thinking, “If this is the future of architecture, I’ll build furniture instead!” To launch his business, Nakashima taught woodshop in exchange for access to machinery at the Maryknoll Mission in Seattle.

From Concentration Camp to New Hope

In early 1942, the Nakashima family, now including wife Marion and infant daughter Mira, were sent with other Japanese Americans to Camp Minidoka, where Nakashima honed his skills with a traditionally trained carpenter, building furniture from leftover building materials, packing crates and bitterbrush.

“In 1943, Antonin Raymond reappears in George’s life, sponsoring the family on his farm in New Hope,” continues Long. “Once the war ended, George, Marion and Mira stayed in Bucks County, and George bartered farm labor for three acres of woodland on Aquetong Road. The family camped in an army tent while George built the woodshop and their home.” There Nakashima began creating furniture and architecture that reflected his reverence for wood.

Today, 15 Japanese/international-style buildings, all designed by Nakashima except one designed by daughter Mira and granddaughter Maria (both architects), stand on the now nearly nine-acre compound, landscaped by George and his father Katsuharu. George integrated elements of both Japanese and Western aesthetics and technology that was of its time yet timeless. Mira Nakashima carries on the Nakashima legacy, adding her own designs to the Nakashima catalog and upgrading the architecture as necessary.

The Soul of a Tree

Let’s return to the American black walnut, described as a “precious species” by Nakashima in his poetical autobiography and woodworker’s guide, The Soul of a Tree. It remains one of the top choices for Nakashima furniture to this day, and a visit to the compound’s lumber storage sheds reveals massive cuts of this magnificent tree, sometimes showcased vertically and chalked with its species and intention for a second life.

“Trees have a yearning to live again,” wrote Nakashima, “perhaps to provide the beauty, strength and utility to serve man, even to become an object of great artistic worth.”

The Enduring Beauty of Nakashima’s Work

Although two-hour Studio tours are offered spring through early fall at the compound—a National Historic Landmark—they are already sold out for 2024. You can also learn about the work in a recently published book The Nakashima Process or visit Mira’s homage to her father at the Michener Museum’s Nakashima Memorial Room. Locals can meditate on his aesthetic in vintage Nakashima chairs and tables made of walnut in The Free Library of New Hope & Solebury’s reading room. George Nakashima’s The Soul of a Tree is part of the library’s collection and is available in bookstores.

Photo by Jack Rosen

Photo by Jack Rosen

Want more news from the Preserve?

Sign up for our weekly emails for more Preserve news, education programs and more

* indicates required