IN 1933, THE JAPANESE philosopher and art historian Soetsu Yanagi published an essay, “What Is Folk Craft?,” that would become a foundational text of the mingei (folk craft) movement that reshaped Japanese aesthetics in the mid-20th century. In his writing, Yanagi proposed a revindication of “a provincial industry” of handmade utilitarian objects that are “indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people, that are used in commonplace settings, that are produced in large numbers, and that are inexpensive.” He felt these folk crafts were fundamental to the restoration of beauty in a world drifting toward soulless mechanization. The people who made them, he wrote, “have entered the way of salvation through unconscious faith. It is a path open to all.” Craft, in Yanagi’s estimation, was not only an artistic movement but a moral one, nothing less than a way to save the world.
The year after Yanagi published his essay, a young Japanese-American architect named George Nakashima, born in 1905 in Spokane, Wash., arrived in his ancestral land. The child of first-generation immigrants, he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930 and soon after fled the professional wasteland of Depression-era America to study around the world. In Tokyo, he worked with the Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond on Frank Lloyd Wright’s annexes at the monumental Imperial Hotel. And from 1936 to 1939, Nakashima lived in southern India, where he oversaw construction on one of the first reinforced concrete buildings on the subcontinent, the Golconde Dormitory at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. While there, he became a devotee of the Hindu ascetic Sri Aurobindo, who gave him the Sanskrit name that would appear, 50 years later, on his wooden grave marker, which is now preserved at his family compound in New Hope, Pa. — Sundarananda, or “He Who Delights in Beauty.”
The name would prove prescient. Despite his professional training, Nakashima was later known not as an architect but as one of the foremost craftsmen in America: a steward of Yanagi’s handmade beauty in a country swiftly abandoning its craft traditions in favor of efficiency and disposability, which it called modernity. From 1946, when he founded his studio on a three-acre plot in New Hope, a historic artist’s colony halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, to his death in 1990 at the age of 85, Nakashima devoted his life to transforming slabs of walnut, cherry, burled maple and redwood into coffee tables shaped like pools of water, Shaker-style chairs with hand-whittled spindles and dining-room tables fashioned from slices of tree trunks, their cracks and seams bridged with joints like butterflies caught in amber. “He felt his work was a form of integral yoga: How you work and live is all connected,” his daughter, Mira, 78, told me on a damp, gray morning last fall while showing me around the grounds of the studio, which she has run since her father’s death. Organic, improvisational and individual, the tens of thousands of objects he made in the course of his lifetime were also functional, meant for daily use; they were, Mira says, “the antithesis of Modernism, a protest against mass production.”