My Nakashima Connection

Brooke Friedman

Born in 1959 and growing up in the family auction business, I have witnessed over 40 years of shifting furniture styles.  First exposure was the 1960’s-70’s French Provincial era; however, my family home and many others eventually morphed and has maintained the stately Federal and Georgian styles.  In 1979, when I first visited the home of my future wife, I paid no attention to the Modern looking furniture in Julie’s dining room. Little did I know that I had experienced my first exposure to George Nakashima furniture.  Little did I know, as well, that my mother-in-law’s dining room set was among the most desirable and collectible furniture across the globe.  More than a few sentences are necessary to describe the artistry in Nakashima’s furniture design.  For that, numerous books are available, including Mira Nakashima’s Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima.

his book Soul of a Tree may best describe his artistic vision.  Nakashima, an M.I.T. trained architect, was an innovator of 20th century furniture design.

Saturday, June 16th, Alex Cooper is honored to sell a pre-eminent collection of exquisite early George Nakashima furniture from the Estate of Dr. Seymour and Mrs. Phyllis Lifschutz, Princeton, New Jersey.  On a personal note, Phyllis and Seymour are my aunt and uncle by marriage.  A degree of sadness hangs over me as we prepare to auction their collection.  For 35+ years and over countless weekends, my wife Julie and I traveled 2 ½ hours to spend a day visiting and sharing in their life, first in their New Brunswick NJ home, and later their Princeton home.  Seymour, an internist, loved to tell his WWII stories of providing medical care for Generals of the Imperial Japanese Army, and maintaining a friendship with several after the war’s end.  Phyllis gained local notoriety as a floral still life and landscape watercolor artist.  It was Seymour’s time in Japan and Phyllis’s artistic eye that led to their adoration for Nakashima furniture, and an eventual decades long friendship with the Nakashima family.

The Lifschutz’s relationship with the Nakashimas began in 1956 when Phyllis’s brother, Morton Wolpert (my father-in-law), visited the Nakashima New Hope workshop and quickly convinced Phyllis to pay a visit.  Need I say it was love at first sight as Phyllis purchased the first piece, a grass-seated stool (lot 1142), of an eventual 50+ piece collection.  The late 1950’s to mid-1960’s was a time of transition in the Lifschutz’s Livingston Avenue residence as they commissioned George Nakashima to design custom pieces for every room, including Seymour’s in-home doctor’s office.  The friendship between the two families quickly grew as they enjoyed frequent dinner parties together, along with a number of George’s other New Brunswick/Princeton clients.  Seymour soon became the Nakashima family physician.  In 1995, the deciding factor in Phyllis and Seymour’s Princeton home purchase was its ability to, not only fit but, beautifully display every piece of their George Nakashima collection.

Uncle Seymour was a stickler for record keeping; his fine art collection purchase receipts and artist biographies maintained in numerous accordion files.  However, not a single Nakashima purchase receipt was preserved, for lack of his realizing values and collectability would explode later in the century.  Mira Nakashima and Soomi graciously forward digital copies of their order cards, dating from 1958. One of the earliest cards, dated 9/20/1958, detailed five of their large cabinets, simply stated “5) Pieces as sketched, Walnut (1 Laurel top).”  While Nakashima’s slab tables are of highest demand, the dovetails and precision detail work of his case pieces, by comparison, is considerably more intensive and time consuming.  My aunt and uncle’s collection comprises a full gamut of Nakashima artistry, many custom designs.  Included are the aforementioned and other cabinets, slab tables, seating, and rare lighting examples.  Their most renowned piece is a Minguren I coffee table, 1965, an English oak burl circular slab with East Indian laurel butterfly joints. The table, lot 1144, has been exhibited across the globe and cover illustrated on two of Nakashima’s most noted exhibition catalogs: the 1989 Full Circle and 1993 Soul of a Tree exhibitions.

As an appraiser and auctioneer of Fine and Decorative Arts, I felt privileged to claim that “My aunt and uncle have one of the most important early collections of George Nakashima furniture.”  Feel free to reach out as I love to share my Lifschutz – Nakashima connection and show off their collection one last time, with passionate and emotional fervor.

The Nakashima exhibition, a major part of our Fine and Decorative Arts auction session, is on view beginning Tuesday, June 12th at 10 AM.  The collection will sell Saturday, June 16th: the Fine and Decorative Arts session starting at 10 AM, and the Nakashima collection commencing at 12 PM.

Brian Cooper CAI, GPPA
Alex Cooper – Auctioneer and Senior Personal Property Appraiser
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