George Nakashima (1905-1990) was born in Spokane, Washington and started out as a student of Forestry and Architecture at the University of Washington in the 1920s. He made architecture his main focus, studying at the École Américaine des Beaux Arts outside of Paris, and graduating from M.I.T. with a Master's in Architecture in 1930. On his own, however, he devoted his time to learning from traditional woodworkers in India and Japan and, while at an internment camp with his family during WWII, he was trained in working with salvaged wood by a master Japanese carpenter. He found an immense well of inspiration in unfinished natural wood, writing that, "in dealing with solid wood almost each piece becomes a personal problem and the nature of each slab is used to its fullest capacity." The furniture and installations that Nakashima designed hearken back to early American furniture in their economy of means and their respect for the unique qualities of each wood.
Nakashima started out in 1931 as an architectural designer for the Long Island State Parks and the New York Government. In 1933 he moved to Japan and then India, working for the architectural offices of Antonin Raymond. He designed an ashram in India and was given the Sanskrit name, Sundarananda, meaning "one who delights in beauty," an incarnation that informed both his work and his working philosophy. Back in America, in the early 1940s, he started a furniture workshop in Seattle and began receiving commissions to design interiors. The pieces he made for the apartment of André Ligné in 1941, are inspired by the simplicity and methods of Shaker furniture and both established his professional aesthetic and were forms that he revisited often throughout his career. Some of these pieces, along with his writing, began appearing in John Entenza's California based magazine Arts & Architecture, making his name known to the West Coast design community. In 1943 Raymond, now living in New Hope, Pennsylvania sponsored the Nakashima family's release from the internment camp and they moved there and established a studio.
Nakashima designed a series of furniture for Knoll in 1946, although he maintained the production rights, selling the same pieces from his own shop. His tables, like the "Slab Coffee Table," were unique in that they often left the natural edge of the wood as part of the finished piece. His style, which remains relatively constant throughout his career, can be seen as an extension of the Arts and Crafts movement in the way it valued craftsmanship that Nakashima believed was "not only a creative force, but a moral idea." During this period he also produced the "Settee, No Arms," and the "Mira" series of chairs. His chairs, while they sometimes revealed the natural knots in the wood, often had a more 'finished' quality than his tables, in that he worked the wood into a more specific shape. In 1957 the company Widdicomb-Mueller released his classical "Origins" line of furniture, which was followed by his "Conoid" series of furniture, frames and room dividers. In 1973 he received his largest single commission, to create over 200 pieces for Governor Rockefeller's home in Tarrytown, New York. The estate, designed by a Japanese architect from Nakashima's Raymond days, called for elegant but durable pieces with an eastern sensibility. This series was called "Greenrock," the name of the estate. In 1983 he designed the massive "Altar of Peace" installed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.