The two Americas of Antonin Raymond and George Nakashima
In thinking about Design Miami/ Podium’s America(s) theme, I feel compelled to approach the subject with humility and care. As an American today, my sense of national pride is confounded by the United States’ lack of global leadership on those most pressing of issues—the global pandemic, the related economic fallout, and the disgrace and tragedy of racial inequities. The events of the last few years have brought into critical light so many of the beliefs I have held about this country, which I nonetheless continue to love. That love, however, is now balanced against, simply put, shame, especially as defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” As an auctioneer, I am both an optimist and a realist: a realist in that I see the imperfections and flaws in an object, yet an optimist in my ability to see an object's limitless value. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for my views of our nation. For many, there are two Americas.
It is within that context that I reflect on the stories of architect Antonin Raymond and architect-craftsman George Nakashima, two lives entwined and in many ways defined by their complicated relationships with America. Raymond, who immigrated from Eastern Europe to the US, spent two decades building a modern Japan only to contribute to its destruction through his work for this country; Nakashima, born in the US to Japanese parents, was imprisoned by the government because of his heritage but would later be recognized as a national treasure, as a master of his field whose work can be found in our finest museums.
Antonin and his wife Noémi Raymond were visionaries—incredibly influential architects who spent much of their careers in Japan as pioneering champions of modernism. Their story is one of perseverance in the face of continuous challenges, a consequence of the realities of the last century's global restructuring and conflicts. In many ways, the Raymonds were the quintessential modernist architects: working beyond ideology, beyond culture, beyond border. At the same time, their story is defined by the complexities of a life impacted by politics and the overwhelming pressures of the national interest.
Born in Bohemia in 1888, Antonin came to the US in 1910 and began working with architects in New York City, most notably Cass Gilbert who at the time was building the famous Woolworth Building. In 1914, he met his French-born wife Noémi Pernessin, who, after WWI, opened a new and defining chapter for the couple by helping Antonin land a position with Frank Lloyd Wright. The Raymonds first went to Japan to work on the construction of Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel. By the early 1920s, they opened their own office in Tokyo, and in 1934, met and hired a young George Nakashima, who was brimming with potential and in the midst of, in his words, “looking for myself,” through a journey around the world.
George essentially oversaw the construction of the Raymond office’s dormitory for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, Southeast India, which would later be credited by some as the first modernist building on the subcontinent. The project provided George invaluable experience working with reinforced concrete, which he later utilized for his iconic Conoid studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Perhaps more significantly, George became a disciple of the yogi at the Ashram, and Sri Aurobindo’s teachings on selflessness deeply affected the young architect. He began to doubt the viability of modernism, which spurred him to seek a deeper expression of creativity, balancing the integrity of the soul with integrity of craftsmanship. Returning to Seattle in 1939, he dedicated himself to woodworking, using the skills he learned from the Japanese artists and the ethos he developed in India to forge a career founded on principles of simplicity, integrity, and communion with nature. But in 1942, he, his wife, and their infant daughter were imprisoned at the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, as the US government decided without evidence that 120,000+ Americans of Japanese ancestry must be treated as enemies of the state.
Meanwhile as WWII loomed, the Raymonds returned to the US in 1938 and built a farm and studio in New Hope in the style of Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, with an educational mission. Antonin officially closed the Tokyo office in 1941, and shortly after he began consulting for the US government, designing a detailed, so called, “Japanese” village with fully furnished interiors, which was sited next to a “German” village of similar scale, the latter designed by Erich Mendelsohn.
The project was part of a broader effort to prepare for US attacks on Germany and Japan.Located at Dugway in Utah at a secure testing facility, the villages were meticulously built by the US Army and then furiously bombed, burned, and destroyed, as the military tested various new incendiary bombs to see what would be most destructive in bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan. The winner was the newly invented napalm bomb. In March 1945, the US used that bomb during Operation Meetinghouse, a nighttime firebombing attack on Tokyo, recognized as the most destructive air raid in history, leaving one million Japanese people homeless and roughly 100,000 Japanese people dead. The war would soon be over.
As controversial and surely complex as Antonin’s work for the government was, it coincided with his effort to help to secure the release of George and his family from the internment camp. In 1943, around the same time the Japanese village was built and destroyed, through Antonin’s influence, the Nakashimas were able to join the Raymonds on their farm in New Hope. George would later buy property nearby, setting up his own studio, which of course, exists today and continues to be run by his daughter Mira and other family members.
Aside from his work making extraordinary furniture, George brought new respect and admiration for Japanese and Eastern cultures, especially through the Nakashima Foundation for Peace. He created a peaceful life for himself and his family in New Hope, joyfully approaching his work as a “last stand against mediocrity in our system,” as he put it in his book The Soul of the Tree. It was that way of living and working—while creating an experience others could share—that he made such a great impact on those who visited him and bought his furniture. Those customers, especially those from the earlier days of Nakashima Woodworker, do not talk about ideas and craftsmanship and legacy. They talk about afternoons spent in New Hope, cups of tea, cherry blossoms, walks in the barn, and the experience of working with someone whose soulful expression was present, not just in the work he made but even more so in the way he was with people.
According to his autobiography, Antonin was not proud of his work at the test site, though the matter is not widely discussed. For their part, Antonin and Noémi returned to Tokyo after the war, reopening their Tokyo office in 1948 to contribute to the rebuilding efforts in Japan and to try to mend the bridges that span the old East-West divide. They took on more than 250 projects through the end of their life and helped recapture a progressive spirit for a people who had undergone the traumas of war, creating modernist structures with sympathy toward traditional Japanese culture, some of which are counted among the most important modern Japanese architecture. The Raymonds' 1954 St. Anselm’s Church is a perfect example; a place of worship and contemplation that interconnects Western and Japanese aesthetics—just one of so many notable structures they conceived that express the beauty and perseverance of the human spirit. ◆