What’s in a Catalog? George Nakashima, 1962

Originally posted May 6, 2010 on interiordesign.net

“Furniture, we feel, is a development of mood besides being purely utilitarian. Basic forms with the reflection of the constancy of nature find satisfaction in times like ours. A small poetic haven in an unsettled world where excitement seems so necessary.” 

George Nakashima, from his 1962 catalog

The 1962 Nakashima catalog shows the same artistry and meticulous attention to detail as his furniture. Like his tables, chairs, case pieces, and lamps, like his writing, architecture, and his business, it is suffused with his philosophy. Humility, simplicity, serenity, natural beauty, harmony, pride, dedication—all were a way of life to him. The catalog expresses his philosophy in its artful and well executed photographs and uncluttered layout, in the choice of fonts, the use of Japanese hand made wrappers, endpapers, and pages, and hand-sewn binding. It states his philosophy and his approach, succinctly, in its text.

On craftsmanship and modern design:
“In a world where fine manual skills are shunned, we believe in them, not only in the act of producing a better product, but in the sheer joy of doing or becoming. We feel that pride in craftsmanship, of doing as perfect a job as possible, of producing something of beauty even out of nature’s discards, are all homely attributes that can be reconsidered. It might even be a question of regaining one’s own soul when desire and megalomania are rampant…”
“In proportion to the flood of consumer goods, we are probably at one of the lowest ebbs of design excellence the world has seen. It requires a genuine fight to produce one well designed object of relatively permanent value.”

On the idiosyncratic nature of his output:
“Many of our pieces are one-of-a-kind and cannot be reproduced nor accurately shown. They often depend on a particular board with extraordinary characteristics. Such boards are at times studied for years before a decision is made to its use, or a cut made at any point. Distinguishing features are fine figures in graining, burls, rich and deep coloring, unusual profiles, and even areas of decomposition.”

On using solid wood:
“Solid wood is a challenge. It is continually ‘alive’ and ‘moves’ depending on weather conditions, moisture content of the air, and temperature. Each board of each species is individual and must be understood; the good characteristics exploited.”

And, significantly:
“Furniture should be lived with and not considered something overly precious.”

The Nakashima catalog is unlike any other I can think of. Part admonition, part jeremiad, it enjoins or challenges his customers to see things differently and to share with George his deep respect for craft traditions, nature, and the well-springs of creativity. Cost was not a formidable obstacle. The 1962 price list shows a Conoid triple chest with sliding doors selling for $360.00; a seven-foot hanging wall case with free-edge front for $350.00; a floor lamp for $105.00; a 66-inch slab coffee table for $150.00, a double pedestal desk for $225.00, and a New chair with rockers and arm for $125.00. This at a time when a Dunbar chest of similar size cost up to $1,500.00, a Herman Miller desk cost $500.00, and Eames aluminum group armchair cost $195.00. Clearly, on some level, George was at least as interested in getting his message across as turning a profit, or maybe he just enjoyed what he was doing.

The 1962 catalog shows George walking the walk as well as talking the talk; it is a document that embodies and projects what he is about, both in word and act.

Dona Meilach on Modern Wood Furniture

Originally posted January 28, 2010 on interiordesign.net

Dona Meilach (1926-2008) was a seemingly indefatigable connoisseur, champion, and chronicler of craftsmanship. All told, she wrote over 40 books and several hundred articles on a broad range of craft topics and techniques. A glimpse at some of the titles—“Creating Art from Fibers and Fabrics,” “Creating With Plaster,” “Papercraft,” “Collage and Assemblage,”—speaks to the encyclopedic breadth of her interests, as well as the depth of her knowledge: she not only studied but also performed the crafts she wrote about.

Her tactile, scholarly, and catholic approach enabled her to deeply understand the craft movements of her era (1960-80’s), and to grasp the tendencies and elements that were significant and innovative. In my library, I have three of Meilach’s books: “Contemporary Art With Wood” (1968); “Creating Modern Furniture” (1975); and “Woodworking, the New Wave”(1981). Along with “Creating Small Wood Objects as Functional Sculpture” (1976), these works form as good an introduction to postwar craft woodworking as exists. Part how-to guides, part visual encyclopedia, these books provide both detailed technical information and lavishly illustrated curatorial information.
“Creating Modern Furniture” is the focus of the present post. Subtitled “Trends, Techniques, Appreciation,” it provides an overview of the craft woodworking movement of the mid-70’s, featuring 580 photographs, mostly of works by a multitude of American artisans. The first part of the book describes woodworking techniques and praxis, including sawing, sanding, grinding, joining, gluing, finishing, and veneering. Trees, wood, lumber, tools, and even work area and safety are discussed.

As interesting as this is, the book’s value lies in the examples that are shown—Meilach had a truly great eye for innovation and beauty. With hindsight, the book contains work by the usual suspects, who may or may not have been usual suspects at the time.

This list includes Michael Coffey, Gary Knox Bennett, Jack Rogers Hopkins, J.B. Blunk, Wendell Castle, Mabel Hutchinson, Jere Osgood, George Nakashima, Wharton Esherick, and John Makepeace. The standout here for me is Jack Rogers Hopkins, a California artisan who worked in laminated, steam-bent woods. I’ve included an image of an installation with a grandfather’s clock and a dining table, and a close-up of the dining table, which to me is the most stunning object in the book. Meilach cites Hopkins for virtuosity, and notes that the interaction of the various wood colors in the table (teak, maple, and birch are used) adds to the total sculptural concept.

Beyond the dozen or so artisans who have become household names in the design market, there are a few dozen more with similar talent, and here the book becomes a guide to future collectability. A few of the more eye-popping works, shown here, include a low table of African Padouk wood by Joe Barano (“a marvelous interplay of sculptural forms”); a coat tree and lounge chair by Edward Livingston; a double love seat of fir by Robert Dice; a “Clam” chair of walnut with fur and leather interior by Edward Jajosky that closes on itself; and a door by sculptor and jewelry designer Svetovar Radakovitch that includes surprises such as inset chunks of colored glass and cast bronze hinges. As striking as these pieces are, they do not even figure in the chapter “Fantasy Furniture,” which includes a surreal-looking chest of drawers in a mélange of woods by Denis Morinaka and a cabinet with doors-within-doors by Ann Maimlund, both pictured here.