July 26–August 2, 2001
An exhibit at the Michener Museum explores the similarities and differences in Modernist furniture.
George Nakashima and the Modernist Moment
Through Sept. 16, James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, 215-340-9800, www.michenerartmuseum.org
George Nakashima (1905-1990), Bucks County furniture maker par excellence, has been nearly everyone’s favorite craft artist for decades. Ostensibly, his innovative furniture was based on traditional Japanese woodworking techniques and imbued with a folksy spirituality. Now, we’re told, he was not truly a craft artist or woodworker at all, but rather a worldly and sophisticated Modernist designer. In this exhibition at the Michener Museum, guest curator Steve Beyer (a sculptor and former assistant artistic director/director of public programs at The Fabric Workshop and Museum) positions Nakashima’s work next to its European counterparts from roughly the same era. On display are 18 choice pieces of furniture by Nakashima, along with several representative pieces each by Finn Juhl, Carlo Mollino, Alexandre Noll, Charlotte Perriand, Gio Ponti and Jean Prouvé.
Beyer has made some great picks and placed Nakashima in good company. From the dainty and elegant Super Leggera chair of Gio Ponti to Alexandre Noll’s clunky Commode with Two Drawers, we can compare a range of Modernist approaches to designing crafted furniture. The similarities between the designers are remarkable. All but one were trained as architects. All had an abiding interest in materials (mainly wood), engineering and craftsmanship. Most preferred small production runs. And much of their furniture has a remarkable formal similarity. For instance, Charlotte Perriand’s petite Slipper Chair (1953) has blocky horizontal and vertical cushions (tan with brown piping) on a stylish low-slung base made of shaped plywood. Placed next to it in the show, Nakashima’s 4’ Settee (1950) has similar blocky cushions (tan with black nubs) and a nearly identical base design, though his is angled more for comfort and made out of polished walnut. Perriand, like Nakashima, worked in Japan for several years, and they both, possibly as a result of this experience, made use of natural-edged wood in their furniture.
Formal comparisons can also be made between Nakashima’s Upholstered Chair (Widdicomb) (1960) and Danish architect and designer Finn Juhl’s Chieftan Chair (1949). Both chairs are carefully structured out of shaped and polished wood forms that suggest the natural forms in driftwood and tree branches. Carlo Mollino also used rounded wood forms engineered into structures in his Side Chair (1947). In Mollino’s furniture, the individually shaped wood components have a sculptural liveliness that almost defy their function as furniture. On another note, Nakashima and Alexandre Noll both liked to leave the wood surface somewhat raw and natural, as seen in Noll’s rustic Table Basse (1947) and Nakashima’s Brogren Stool (1946). They also shared an interest in the spiritual and physical life of the tree.
While most of the pieces of furniture in the exhibition were made in small production runs of about six to no more than 140, some are one-of-a-kind pieces, and others were mass produced, like Ponti’s Super Leggera chair (1953) — which can still be ordered from Cassina, USA — and Prouvé’s Standard Chair (c. 1950). The classic Stnadrard Chair has a black tubular steel frame and front legs, the seat and back are made of curved plywood, and the back legs are narrow at the top and bottom but thicken in a preposterous fashion in the middle where they attach to the seat. Yet this is really good design — it works, it’s interesting and it looks great. Like Nakashima, Prouvé brought his training as a craftsman and an architect to bear in his designs. On the other end of the spectrum, Gio Ponti’s unique Table (1942) is made of oak with inset copper tiles on the top that have been etched and enameled with velvety red and white patterns like hieroglyphics. Ponti, like Nakashima, preferred making furniture unique or in very small production runs.
Demonstrating the best case for Nakashima’s skills as a furniture designer are Long Chair (1951) and Conoid Bench with Back (1961). Long Chair was mass produced on a very limited scale and is a well-conceived and beautifully made piece of furniture. Its design was clearly based on a conventional lounge chair, but Nakashima’s choice of materials — black walnut, cotton and sea grass — is odd, inspired and lovely. The chair has one giant armrest that extends, generously and brutally, down its entire length. This armrest is made of a wide plank with a smooth-planed edge on the inside near the user and a natural edge on the outside, which functions like a small coffee table. Conoid Bench with Back is made of a huge slab of walnut held up by four short spindle legs and has a row of 23 elegant hickory spindles (attached in the traditional manner with wedges) fitted into a curving rosewood back. Rosewood butterflies join a meandering split in the wood seat.
More than anything, this show offers a great opportunity to see — and examine — up close the individual pieces of classic Modernist furniture it contains. When I visited the Michener a couple weekends ago, a number of enthusiasts went so far as to lie down on the floor next to a piece of furniture and peer upwards at its underside. Joining in, I soon found out why. Many of the joints in Nakashima’s furniture (such as Conoid Bench ) make use of traditional techniques in a unique and inspired way. But, there were surprising inconsistencies, even rude shortcuts, in the "traditional Japanese craftsmanship" of some of Nakashima’s furniture. Slab Coffee Table #1, 1945, for example, has kludgy disks (wooden washers) awkwardly screwed onto its underside with the spindle legs jutting out of them. Perhaps these puzzling details, in a funny way, will help to demythologize Nakashima and just get us back to looking at the work. And, theoretical repositioning aside, the best reason to see this show is to experience firsthand the excellent and beautiful furniture it contains.
Attention Nakashima fans! Call the Michener museum for information about "A Nakashima Celebration" and "The Collector’s Market for Nakashima’s Furniture," a festival/panel discussion connected with the show. Both events will take place Sept. 8. There’s also a related exhibition up until Sept. 15 at Moderne Gallery in Old City that includes more than 70 of Nakashima’s vintage works.