A Black Walnut Dream: George Nakashima's Altars of Peace


 The name of George Nakashima is as famous for its contributions to design philosophy as it is for its artistry. As a woodworker, furniture maker, designer, and architect, Nakashima has enough titles to cement his place as the father of the American Craft Movement. But around the world, a separate legacy follows the renowned Japanese-American craftsman: his interest in world peace and  humanitarianism through design. Here we explore a project that was particularly close to his heart.   

From the beginning of his career until the end of his life,  trees were a constant source of inspiration for George Nakashima. His best known pieces remain large-scale wooden tables with unfinished natural edges, which were cut directly from magnificently large, often imperfect specimens. To Nakashima (who had been a forestry major in college before switching to architecture), trees had a "prodigious ability to serve," doing nothing but good, giving oxygen while absorbing gases harmful to other living things. Trees were a reminder of the quiet harmony and sustainability of nature. In his commissions as in his personal projects, Nakashima's ultimate mission was to bring that same environment of natural peace to the home.   

In 1984, Nakashima had the opportunity to buy an enormous American Walnut tree of extraordinary quality. At the time, he was running his own studio while recovering from an operation. One night, he had a vivid dream where the same walnut tree appeared before him "as a giant table, an altar for peace which would be an instrument of reconciliation, of bringing people together." He saw this tree being made into multiple altars, one for each continent of the world, creating a safe space for peaceful activities for all types of communities, religions, and cultures.  

In a small but firm voice the bole asked to be realized; two adjoining slabs opened to make an extraordinary table... It will be a symbol, a token of man's aspirations for a creative and beautiful peace, free of political overtones; an expression of love for his fellow man. We have become so basically disoriented with our blind faith in science and technology without spirituality, it brought us to our pit of madness.  --- George Nakashima, Oct. 1, 1984
Original sketch by George Nakashima

Original sketch by George Nakashima

When Nakashima awoke, he  immediately wrote the dream down on paper and began to sketch. With the image of the noble black walnut before him, he decided to make six enormous altars of peace to be donated to each continent. Each altar would stand as a symbol for peaceful coexisting between communities and nations within and outside of that continent. To Nakashima the table was "a spiritual crossroad", a meeting point where peoples of all backgrounds could sit together to exchange a meal or conversation. He was convinced that if each continent had an altar of peace, the world would be a better place.Today, three out of six tables have been completed, with the Nakashima Foundation for Peace continuing the work after Nakashima's death in 1990. The resulting Altars for Peace are considered sacred spaces where people can come together and talk, worship, think, or simply be together. 

George Nakashima admiring the finished Altar in the Arts Building on the Nakashima compound before sending it to New York.

George Nakashima admiring the finished Altar in the Arts Building on the Nakashima compound before sending it to New York.

1. Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City
On New Year's Eve in 1986, the first altar was blessed by representatives of various religions in the presence of diplomats from all nations. Leonard Bernstein conducted a Concert for Peace for the occasion, which would become an annual tradition in the church. Prayers for peace from all tongues, traditions and by all peoples have been offered here ever since. This was the only Altar Nakashima was able to complete in his lifetime. 

2. Russian Academy of Art, Moscow
The second Altar was built in 1995 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. It was made from the same monumental black walnut tree as the first altar, and was also blessed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  Nakashima had a deep respect for the people of Russia, and had expressed a wish to place the Peace Table for Europe there before his death in 1990. From building to placement, the process took 12 years. It currently resides in the renovated Russian Academy of Art, "to help inspire peace in the new millennium."

Mira Nakashima, playing the flute at the unveiling of the third Altar for Peace in Auroville, India.

Mira Nakashima, playing the flute at the unveiling of the third Altar for Peace in Auroville, India.

3. Auroville Hall of Peace, India
While working under the architect Antonin Raymond, Nakashima oversaw a dormitory construction project for the Sri Aurobindo ashram, a Hindu spiritual retreat in the outskirts of Pondicherry. The experience left him in awe:  to Nakashima, the retreat was an ideal existence on earth, where egotism, rancor, and pettiness fell away in the search for divine consciousness. The ashram was also the place where he made his first piece of furniture. Nakashima became a member of the ashram during his stay, and later admitted, "It was the answer to all my searches, finally conferring meaning to my life". In 2014 the Nakashima Foundation donated the Peace Table for Asia to Auroville, an experimental city of peace founded by the Aurobindo ashram where men and women of all countries live in peace and progressive harmony. It currently resides inside Auroville's Hall of Peace, serving as a place for conflict resolution within the community. 

Africa is the next continent on the list, where the Peace Table for Africa will rest in the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. George Nakashima may be long gone, but his work continues to bring our world closer to peaceful harmony. Beyond continuing to work on the remaining three altars, the Nakashima Foundation for Peace is also working on constructing "Mini Peace Tables" for countries like Israel and Japan. One such table currently resides in the White House in Washington DC, in the personal quarters of President Barack Obama and his family.