A pair of Pennsylvania homes constructed by furniture designer George Nakashima have become an enduring testament to midcentury folk craft.

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.” 

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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.”

Kevin Nakashima has never moved from his family home, the first that his father, George Nakashima, built on the property in 1946
Kevin Nakashima has never moved from his family home, the first that his father, George Nakashima, built on the property in 1946 © Chris Mottalini - In the office sits the handcrafted walnut furniture for which his father became famous, and a lifetime’s accumulation of art, books, papers and family mementos, including artworks by Ben Shahn.

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Nakashima decided to abandon architecture in 1941, ... [Yet] Nakashima never gave up architecture entirely. In the years he spent developing his practice, he also built 19 buildings on what would become an 8.8-acre compound, including a modest 1,397-square-foot three-bedroom ranch home at the heart of the property that he created for his family in 1946 — where his 65-year-old son, Kevin, now lives — and another 2,550-square-foot four-bedroom house completed in 1970 for Mira, her then husband and their three children in a clearing across the road (they had a fourth child a few years after the building’s completion). Nakashima would go on to construct more ambitious, expressive structures on the land, buildings like the seemingly weightless concrete rainbow of the so-called Conoid Studio (1959), the Arts Building (1965-67), with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof that looks like a concrete tarp on wooden tent poles, and the museum-like Reception House (1975), which together form a wholly intact, monumental core for the studio’s campus.

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