This article is the first in a series resurrecting an approach to understanding art, first introduced by the famous New York furniture dealer Israel Sack (before anybody reading this but me was born). I will pick a different maker and form every three months. If there is something you would like to have included here, please write to me directly.
“Good, better, best” should read exactly as it sounds. Today we’re looking at three levels of coffee tables by the famed New Hope, Pennsylvania designer George Nakashima. As many of you know, Nakashima is the man who first popularized “free edge” furniture, working from the late 1940’s until his death in 1990. His daughter Mira, a formidable designer in her own right, carries on the tradition through today.
Nakashima made furniture of every stripe but he is best remembered for his coffee tables, the prices of which are supported by a world-based market. As Mira once noted while giving a lecture at my auction hall, her father used roughly hewn, “flitch cut” pieces for his creations because they were inexpensive cast-offs. When given lemons, make lemonade, and so rich a tonic was never produced with such vitality and distinction.
Good: Slab coffee table, New Hope, PA, 1973; Figured walnut; Signed with client name; 14” x 53 1/2” x 22 1/2”
Sold for: An elegant, basic Nakashima coffee table - The base, or support structure, is simple and more typical of George’s work from the 50’s and 60’s rather than this later date. As we shall see, the idea evolved into more architecturally complicated and pleasing. The wood used for the top board is interesting enough, though it lacks the intensity of his best work. The edges are relatively restrained, and there are no butterfly joints reinforcing in gaps at the top.
Sold for: $9,375
Better: Fine Minguren I coffee table, New Hope, PA, 1975; Figured walnut, rosewood; Unmarked; 15 1/2” x 77 1/2” x 32”
A better table in several ways - First, the top board is clearly more organic and exciting, yielding to an asymmetric edge. Further, the gaps and weak points in the board are secured in several places by Nakashima’s use of butterfly joints, usually of a contrasting material like rosewood. Additionally, the base structure, “Minguren 1” is a radical departure from his earlier work, more in line with traditional American furniture. This is a very strong piece of Nakashima.
Sold for: $30,000
Best: Exceptional walnut burl and East Indian laurel Conoid Long Coffee Table, 1966; Provenance: Toby Royston, Folly Cottage, Exton, PA, copy of original invoice available; Unmarked; 15 1/4” x 82” x 22 1/2”
Nakashima studio, at the risk of oversimplifying his work, produced three levels of furniture. The first are fairly simply, functional pieces, either mild or straight edge. Most of his padded lounge chairs, sofas, and ottomans come to mind. Next, like the two pieces mentioned above, are one-offs of fine quality but typify most of his production. The third level seem to be pieces made for friends of the family, or at least people with whom George had a deeper relationship. These have at least one of the following: Rare wood type, extraordinary free edge, numerous structural details, and unusual function. This table made for a friend of Nakashima who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house “without a right angle”, is a “one in a hundred” piece in several ways. The piece of wood used for the top was both rare in Nakashima’s work and posed an unusual problem in making a compatible base. Nakashima made a sleigh base for this table, one of a small percentage found on his coffee tables. The scale is also atypical, longer and thinner, serving more as a piece of sculpture than a functional table. I am sure there is something else like this out there, but I haven’t seen it.
Sold for: $146,40
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