George Nakashima's Origins Collection for Widdicomb-Mueller

In July of 1957, two furniture manufacturers, Widdicomb Furniture Company and Mueller Furniture merged to form Widdicomb-Mueller. A year later, the firm launched a bold new line designed by Japanese-American Master Woodworker, George Nakashima. Featuring 60 architectural designs that showcased the natural beauty of wood, it soon grabbed the attention of the press and consumers alike. The October issue of House Beautiful dedicated seven pages to the collection including the cover. A black and white version would later adorn the Origins catalog cover.



Key features of the line

Nakashima's embrace of organic/freeform shapes, unfashionable sap wood and natural grain were viewed as quite avant-garde at the time, when most 'factory' furniture had a tinted finish that homogenized the color across a piece of furniture and concealed the wood's nuances.


To win over the public, Nakashima personally selected particularly beautiful woods including East Indian Laurel, Carpathian Elm, Black Walnut and Rosewood. For the Laurel he developed a unique finish called 'Sundra' meaning 'thing of beauty'. The Sundra stamp found on many pieces has led to the line being referred to (erroneously) as the Sundra collection. While not as collectible as pieces from Nakashima's studio, Widdicomb-Mueller's craftsmen handmade the line with the same techniques specified by the designer himself and it is logical to assume Nakashima oversaw pre-production to guarantee accuracy and quality.


Techniques employed include hand shaved hickory chair spindles that retain the tool marks,



...highly visible joinery such as dovetails on the corner of several dining tables




...or the pegged tenons of the stretchers a few others.




Examples from the line


I've been lucky enough to acquire (and then sell on) some of the pieces from the Origins collection over the past 5 years including the following:


A set of six of GN 271-W 'New Chairs'




A GN254 Lounge chair with original tag showing it was sold at the Grand Rapids Showroom -


The original fabric though heavily warm was remarkably similar to the other lounge chairs shown in the House Beautiful spread:



And most recently a GN 203 Extending Dining Table with two leaves. See more photos and the listing here.


I acquired another Origins dining table recently (Keeping it, sorry!), the 269 Model:

This particular table was featured in a Look magazine article (April 28th 1959) on the great craftsman. He is shown demonstrating the drop leaf support leg to his son Kevin. (see below)



The House Beautiful Feature, October 1958.

Scroll to view the entire article.



Selected press for the Origins Line:

(The Miami News, Jan 22nd,1959)


(Shawnee News Star, Sep 28,1958)


(Chicago Tribune, Jun 25, 1958)



Widdicomb-Mueller Showroom, Grand Rapids, MI


The Origins rollout was rather incredible, with the showroom being transformed into a visual masterclass by architect Curtis Bessinger, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice who would go on to be head architectural consultant for House Beautiful Magazine for many years. Bessinger crafted a space that showcased the line alongside architectural details such as perforated/carved clerestory window panels, warm wood walls featuring similarly carved teak panels and one of the most beautiful copper fireplaces I've ever seen.


Ironically, Nakashima was oustpoken about his dislike of Wright's buildings, in particular the poor craftsmanship. It was his experience of this that led him to devote his life to woodworking. Nonetheless, Nakashima furniture in a Wright (or Wright inspired home) are widely recognized as a perfect pairing.


The fireplace featured a unique abstract butterfly motif, executed in a range of different colors.

Above and below: In these rare black and white photos taken by architect and photographer Norman F. Carver Jr., the fireplace almost steals the show and Carver seems to have been rather taken with it.

Below: It is interesting to see how the same space was transformed for a different collection, namely Paul McCobb's collection for Widdicomb-Mueller. The windows have been stripped back to minimalist frames, ornate wall panelling has been replaced with solid plaster or grass cloth and even the fireplace (though not completely visible) seems to have had a facelift of clean-lined wood. This photo was borrowed from the excellent Paul McCobb Blog by Jonathan Goldstein.



References:


House Beautiful Magazine, October 1958

Untitled article, Shawnee News Star, Sep 28,1958

'Nothing Matches' article The Miami News, Jan 22nd,1959

'Newest from Grand Rapids' Chicago Tribune, Jun 25, 1958

Look Magazine, April 28, 1959

Nature Form and Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima. by Mira Nakashima, 2003

Paul McCobb Blog by Jonathan Goldstein.


Big thanks to Anna at ShopNueve for sharing the Origins catalog images. Be sure to check out her online store for fantastic furnishings.

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