Wood That Could

The workshop homes of two 20th-century artisans, George Nakashima (above) and Wharton Esherick, stand as shrines to American design and woodworking.
The workshop homes of two 20th-century artisans, George Nakashima (above) and Wharton Esherick, stand as shrines to American design and woodworking. (© 2006 George Nakashima Woodworker)
By David A. Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Wharton Esherick's old place in Paoli, Pa., is filled with dancers carved from whole trees and decidedly irregular plank floors that flow like varnished rivers. Forty-five miles away in another Philadelphia suburb, George Nakashima's lush spread features hand-finished tables that spread like placid lakes and an oak cabinet with grain so vivid it seems to swirl over the doors. At both places, the houses and studios of two 20th-century master craftsmen, trees are celebrated in both life and in lumber, with workshops embraced by forest settings.

If you love wood, you're going to love these 'hoods.

The studios-turned-museums of Esherick and Nakashima, within an easy loop of each other and Philly, make for a weekend pilgrimage through an American renaissance of furniture design. Giants in the field, both men made artful pieces that came to command high prices. Subsequently, they crafted visionary nests for themselves that can stir even the least handy of us.

My first stop was Paoli, where Esherick landed in 1913 after losing his job as an illustrator in Philadelphia. The studio he built in stone and wood eventually became his home and is preserved just as he left it when he died in 1970.

Your first glimpse is of the garage, with an oddly curving roof and sloping beams that signal this is no T-square woodworker. Esherick had a genius for turning a log's defect into an advantage. With a disdain for straight lines and formal plans, his work exudes movement and wit.

In the 1920s, Esherick began carving frames he hoped would make his paintings more marketable. His friend Sherwood Anderson, the author, told him the frames were better than the paintings. Esherick took the hint. He started making furniture: desks, chairs, cabinets. But he remained an artist, and his studio became a museum in 1973.

Inside the front door, hand-carved coat hooks honor the artisans who helped build the studio: the stonemason, the carpenter holding his saw, the hod carrier and the laborer. Above them, Esherick carved himself wielding a hammer and chisel like a crazed conductor. Visitors are encouraged to touch the wood. Hand oils are good for it.

"An ax was his favorite carving tool," says Paul Eisenhauer, the museum's director of programs. "The wood told him what to do."

Turn right at the coat hooks and sculptures rise like totems. "Spiral Column," a trunk of white pine, soars 14 feet from floor to roof beam. It climbs like a giant snake, flexed and mighty. For Esherick, curves and spirals embodied change.

"He loved motion, he loved music," says Eisenhauer. A music stand swoons backward. A carved blue horse, six feet tall, charges through the workshop at full gallop.

The working staircase is a magical spiral with treads mortised into a twisting red-oak trunk; their outer edges hang in space. It looks both elegant and completely natural, rising, in the words of one visitor, "like a DNA strand fresh from the primordial soup." Invited to display work at the 1939 World's Fair, Esherick shipped his staircase to Queens, N.Y. It caused a sensation.

Esherick's furniture started as angular and gradually grew more fluid. A 1958 desk in curly oak unfolds before you. First, shelves slide out to form a writing desk. A slim drawer above reveals financial records. At the top, two shelves slide open with a burst of light, each with a bulb triggered by the motion. (Esherick used a refrigerator light switch.) Reflectors focus the beams on the work space. The wood glows.

The museum gets about 5,000 visitors a year, including furniture makers from all over the world. (Individuals can take one-hour tours on weekends with a reservation; groups can arrange for tours on weekdays.)

Many pilgrims continue to the Nakashima studio in New Hope, about an hour and a half northeast. This studio is still operational, doubling as a living museum to George Nakashima, who established it in the 1940s. Nakashima's work is more serene and Shakerlike than Esherick's, but they share a joy in natural shapes and respect for the wood's texture and luster.

Like the Esherick museum, the studio is tucked into the landscape. Since Nakashima's death in 1990, his daughter Mira has managed the place, designing pieces on commission and working with 10 craftsmen who build the chairs, tables and other works. A recent visit found her unpacking large crates of items returning from an exhibition in Seoul. A new table runs more than $10,000, and a rare 1960s Nakashima table fetched $129,000 at a 2004 auction.

The compound where Nakashima worked for more than 40 years, though, is an ode to simplicity. The showroom looks out on cherry trees he planted, which bloom in two waves: first, the white of early April, followed by a wave of pink.

Nakashima grew up in the Pacific Northwest and studied architecture in Paris, Japan, India and at MIT. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government placed him, his wife, Marion, and Mira with other Japanese Americans in an internment camp in south-central Idaho. There, with the task of making family shelters, he used what materials he could find and learned how to handle wood from a Japanese carpenter. When an architect in Pennsylvania offered to sponsor Nakashima's release, his family came to Bucks County. Nakashima later called his journey "a quest for excellence and beauty."

Standing in a lumber room, his daughter points toward massive pieces of black walnut, English oak and other planks. They stand, row after row, like silhouettes in a theatrical forest set. It's an atmosphere far more reverent than a lumberyard stacked with 2-by-10s, but the vibrant trade evident here shows that the Nakashima studio is a house of both art and commerce.

"My father said cutting wood is like cutting diamonds," explains Mira Nakashima. The work takes "good concentration, good machine skills, a good eye," and, she says, pausing, "an ability to meet schedules."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company