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The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum may get the most attention for its gardens — rose, rain and Japanese among them — but its trees are also a big deal. The Chanhassen preserve is home to all manner of buckeye and birch, poplar and pine, not to mention apple hybrid #1711, which went on to become the world-famous Honeycrisp.

Much less well known is the arboretum library’s rare collection of hardwood-crafted furniture, designed by the late George Nakashima, which makes the reading spaces feel rather like the outside has come indoors.

An enormous worktable, made from a sprawling slab of black walnut split vertically, retains the tree trunk’s natural contour. A coffee table sliced from a huge oak burl presents its gnarled whorls as a whimsical pattern.

Many of the furnishings reflect the famed midcentury designer’s signature style, of preserving trees in nearly their natural wild state. Unlike other woodworkers, Nakashima viewed knots and cracks not as flaws, but features, an essential part of a tree’s “soul.”

His organic designs echo the arboretum’s mission to celebrate trees and the natural world, said librarian Kathy Allen, who admits that each time she passes her favorite Nakashima table, she can’t help but run a hand across it.

The size and quality of the library’s assembly of 80-some tables, chairs and other pieces make it especially rare, said Timothy Andreadis, head of 20th-century design at Freeman’s, a Philadelphia-based auction house known for reselling Nakashima works. “It’s really quite an extraordinary grouping of Nakashima’s pieces, and it certainly is one of the best public collections,” Andreadis said.

Former Minnesota Gov. Elmer Andersen and his wife, Eleanor, who helped establish the horticultural library, commissioned Nakashima to furnish it in the early 1970s. The wood-paneled, sun-drenched space, designed by noted Minnesota architect Edwin Lundie, is stocked with books on the natural sciences and cultivating plants. It is home to one of the nation’s largest seed catalog collections, as well as a climate-controlled store of rare books dating back to 1503.

For years, naturalist, educator and author Jim Gilbert (he contributes to the Minnesota Weatherguide and the Star Tribune) has regularly planted himself at one of the Nakashima tables with a stack of books to do his research and writing. Between the furniture and the view, he said, the library is a pleasant spot to commune with nature, though he’s occasionally interrupted by furniture aficionados or entire woodworking classes. “There are always people coming in to stroke the furniture,” he said.

Arboretum volunteer Mary Klacan cleaned and re-oiled the oak burl table.
Arboretum volunteer Mary Klacan cleaned and re-oiled the oak burl table.

‘Miserable Day’

But the library is empty of visitors on Miserable Day, an annual event when staff and volunteers wipe the furniture free of dust and finger grime, then re-oil surfaces until their gleaming woodgrain pulses with life.

At this year’s Miserable Day, in early March, Susan Cross, a 75-year-old former Army nurse and longtime library volunteer and staff member, dispatched instructions with precision and care. Pick up chairs evenly by the base, not by the arm, she explained to her crew of nearly 20. Apply the oil with the grain, she added. “No dripping and no scrubbing, either,” she implored.

Cross has been leading Miserable Day for more than four decades. In fact, she did the very first one by herself, shortly after the collection arrived and disaster befell. One morning, library staffers discovered that rainwater had come in near a bay window and soaked the oak burl table. The one-of-a-kind piece, created from a tree in England’s Sherwood Forest believed to be at least 400 years old, looked as if it had been bleached.

Following instructions from George Nakashima, she re-oiled the oak table as well as all the other pieces. The task became an annual affair, and the original librarian dubbed it Miserable Day because of the next-day soreness promised by so much lifting and reaching.

“I didn’t consider it miserable,” Cross said with a smile.

Left: Detail of the oak burl table. Right: Detail of the black walnut table.
Left: Detail of the oak burl table. Right: Detail of the black walnut table.

Adding character

The library’s furniture doesn’t get nearly as dirty as it used to in the days before air conditioning, when the windows stayed open in the summer, Cross said. The library also added UV protection to the glass after noticing that sunlight had faded some pieces.

But the collection faces greater risk from the visitors who enjoy it. The seats of some chairs have been deeply gouged, presumably by jean rivets. The library’s most notorious visitor, who Cross referred to as “White-Out Man,” once spattered tiny droplets of the correction fluid all over one table, damaging its surface.

The library considers the collection usable artwork, and strives to preserve it and make it accessible. That approach aligns with Nakashima’s philosophy that his furniture was meant to be lived with, and that the resulting scratches and dents simply added character. (Nakashima referred to this process as “Kevinizing,” in honor his young son, Kevin, who was proficient at “distressing” furniture.)

Still, the Miserable Day volunteers take great care.

Volunteer Pamela Layton helped clean several chairs in the Arboretum's reading spaces.
Volunteer Pamela Layton helped clean several chairs in the Arboretum's reading spaces.

Bob Torkelson, who has participated in more than 20 of the work sessions, considers it his contribution to keeping the wood in prime condition, so he can show it off the rest of the year. “When I take friends from out of town to see the furniture, they just can’t believe it,” he said.

Cross has known the collection longer than anyone and has absorbed many of its nuances, including how to put the room back together.

She hoisted a heavy Nakashima clock — a thick, abstract slab of black walnut root — up a wall, struggling to get it into place.

“Sooner or later, I won’t be able to do this,” she said.

Then she tilted the freshly oiled, functional sculpture at just the right angle and it was back in its rightful place — until next year.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s Andersen Horticultural Library is currently closed due to COVID-19.