Microcosms of Wood: George and Mira Nakashima at Swarthmore College

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This post was first published on the author’s art blog: https://dartjournal.wordpress.com.

Disclaimer: I monitor for the List Gallery regularly but I am not involved in the management or day-to-day running of the gallery. I was also not asked by gallery staff to write this review.

George Nakashima is a legendary name in woodworking and furniture design. Trained as an architect, he pioneered the “free-edged” treatment of wood surfaces that has become so commonplace in contemporary wooden furniture. Thus, it came as no surprise that the exhibition Keisho/Continuance attracted a large crowd on its opening day. Two weeks later, visitors are still streaming steadily through the nondescript List Gallery on Swarthmore College’s arboretum-campus. I found it rather poignant that to access an exhibition dedicated to the man-modified beauty of wood, one must pass through a pathway lined with trees. Intentional or not, the contrast between the beauty of living and dead wood can be evocative of the tension between stillness and energy. Especially since it was really windy during my walk up to the gallery.

The exhibition features works from both George Nakashima’s practice and the practice of his daughter, Mira (who is also trained in architecture). In a way, the exhibition serves as a hybrid of a mini-retrospective for George and a normal exhibition for Mira. Apart from furniture designed by the two, the exhibition also features various archival photographs provided by the Nakashima family which depict the life and processes of the Nakashimas as well as their architectural projects.

Upon entering the exhibition space, I was struck by the large room divider featured in the middle. About seven feet tall, George Nakashima’s Claro Walnut Tsuitate (1989) embodies the raw power of the material of wood. Acting almost as signatures of his design, two exquisite butterfly clamps hold the swelling form together in the middle. Alongside it, a wider, shorter version of the wooden slab in the Tsuitate takes the form of a sofa designed by Mira Nakashima. Presented back-first to the gallery visitor, I did not discern its practical function until I considered the Tsuitate. With the sculptural and tonal qualities of wood in full display, it took me a moment to come to terms that these are pieces created to be used.

Just behind the Tsuitate, two tables created in the “free-edge” style appear within sight. In Raibel Table (2013) Mira reigned in her father’s sometimes wild “free-edge” aesthetic (as seen in the neighboring Arlyn Coffee Table (1989)) and created a design that paradoxically integrates the restraint of contemporary furniture and the natural energy of wood. While the wood grains in the Arlyn Table flows freely and indicates a slight lightness, the grains in the Raibel Table are more self-contained, giving the piece a greater weight despite its smaller size

Because George Nakashima is revered for his natural forms and butterfly clamps, it is easy to forget he was also a modernist furniture designer with the meticulousness of a trained architect. In the secondary exhibition space, George Nakashima’s expert woodworking techniques manifest in clean lines and geometric forms, standing in clear contrast to the free flowing edges of his famous tables.

While the pieces in the exhibit are unarguably beautiful, the exhibit’s set up could be more organized. In the beginning, I wasn’t too sure which works were by Mira Nakashima and which were by George Nakashima. I had to look into the descriptions of the tags to identify the creator/designer of each individual piece. This is more technical criticism, but this kind of information should be more obvious. Also, someone other than a hapless intern (I’m assuming) should have read through the wall text and edited it. As it stands, the stream of consciousness technique should not be used to outline a person’s biographical detail.

It is unfortunate that these small but glaring issues may detract from the art featured in the exhibition, as the art is fantastic. The works and designs of father and daughter are wonderfully arranged to elucidate the distinctive styles that George Nakashima created and passed down. At the same time, Mira’s personal contributions to the family style is also acknowledged throughout the exhibit. I highly recommend the exhibition.

Featured image by Damien Ding ’18/The Daily Gazette.

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