Mira Nakashima, Inside the Nakashima Studio

Interview with Mira Nakashima, Creative Director of the Nakashima Studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania

About Mira Nakashima

Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, born 1942 in Seattle, WA, followed her father’s path by becoming a woodworker. She attended Harvard University and received a Masters degree in Architecture from Waseda University in Tokyo. She worked with her father for many years as a colleague and designer in his workshop.

Since her father’s death in 1990, she has been the creative director of the Nakashima studio, in New Hope, PA, where she continues to produce her father’s classic furniture designs, also designing and producing her own work from this location.

Interview date: 16th of November, 2012

Introduction

With such a long break in our interview format it felt right that we return with an interviewee of real significance, someone we had great respect for. We both feel really honoured to be able to get the opportunity to connect with Mira Nakashima, daughter of the great furniture designer George Nakashima. For a long time their work has been a big inspiration, not only in the products they create but the philosophy that George attached to the company over the years.

Mira continues to represent this school of thought as artistic director, a position she has held since 1990 when her father unfortunately passed away. I’m sure many of you are well aware of Mira and what the Nakashima studio does, but hopefully this short exchange also introduces their work to a great number of fresh individuals too. We hope you enjoy reading through and viewing these archive photographs of the Nakashima family.

1. Hi Mira, could you briefly summarise what the Nakashima studio is, and the work it undertakes?

We make individually designed and crafted wooden furnishings, based on the tradition of George Nakashima.

2. For those of us that haven’t come across you before, who are you and what is your role within the company?

As the daughter of George Nakashima, I have been Artistic Director since my father died in 1990. My most important role is design development and supervision.

Inside the Nakashima Workshop
A look at the Nakashima workshop bench in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Notice the tools and the different offcuts of wood.

3. Could you explain a little about the ethos behind the studio, what is its philosophy founded upon?

The work of the Studio was begun as a protest to mass-production and is based on the belief that a positive impact can be made on modern society through good design and craftsmanship, as did the Bauhaus.

4. Since initially being an understudy to your father, how has your role developed over the years?

I had to take over all phases of design and furniture production when my father died and then administrative responsibilities when my mother died. Fortunately, I now have a lot of excellent helpers!

5. You studied architecture before focusing on furniture design, a path your father also took. Was this something he encouraged you to do and where do you believe the parallel between architecture and furniture lies?

My father studied and practiced architecture for many years before deciding to make furniture exclusively, and would not have designed as well as he did without this background. Because he felt that it was the best training available, he insisted that I too study architecture at Harvard and at Waseda University in Tokyo. He considered designing furniture identical to architecture, only on a smaller, human scale. Nowadays, both fields have gotten more complicated and gone in different directions, both losing sight of the functional and economic aspect as well as the human element. I am not at all sure Dad would have approved, as he also disapproved of modern architecture during his lifetime!

From the archive, George and Marion Nakashima, also Mira photographed as a baby George Nakashima, Archive Photograph
From the archive, George and Marion Nakashima, also Mira photographed as a young girl.

6. Have you felt the need to step outside of your fathers shadow in any respect, creating work and making decisions from your own experience and perspective?

Yes. My mother lived for 14 years after my father died, and insisted we keep things as they always were. However, in order to keep the business viable, I have always had to think “outside the box” he created.

7. We were really blown away by the Keisho collection that you designed, can you explain to us a little more about its concept and how the studio came about producing this?

Thank you! “Keisho” means simply “continuation” in Japanese, and the collection consists of designs that I developed, mostly as special client requests, after my father’s death in 1990. Bob Aibel of the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia encouraged and sponsored us to do a show of the new designs at his gallery in 1993, which brought us back to life by establishing me as a designer separate from my father. We plan to do another show in 2013 to showcase my new designs that have developed over the current period of time.

Interior Shot of the Nakashima Showroom in New Hope, Pennsylvania
Interior Shot of the Nakashima Showroom in New Hope, Pennsylvania. This wood frame building was built in 1954, contains an array of publicity from the past and present, as well as books, catalogues and small items for sale.

8. We are fascinated by the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi and interpret the imperfections and organic nature of the Nakashima creations as prime examples of objects that will only improve as they mature. Notoriously this term is difficult to define, however in saying this do you consider the studios work as embracing the spirit of Wabi-sabi?

Definitely. We depend entirely on the natural shapes and colors of the wood to inspire and determine the course of our work, and never apply artificial colors or shiny finishes.

9. I personally love that you value wood more for what it is naturally, looking to emphasise its original form opposed to completely altering what nature originally intended. Why do you believe it’s so difficult for other companies to grasp this concept of creating items that aren’t completely uniform, and what are they missing out on in doing so?

It is actually very problematical to respect and honor natural forms, so that each piece is individual and different from the next. This means many hours searching for the ideal slab of wood and resolving not only the variations of each piece, but dealing with client requests as well. As this artistic process is not at all cost-effective, we have historically sold only directly to clients, eliminating the middle-man markup of modern entrepreneurship.

George Nakashima photographed in 1986, standing inside the workshop with one of his 'Peace Altar' tables
George Nakashima photographed in 1986, standing inside the workshop with one of his ‘Peace Altar’ tables.

10. How many craftsmen currently undertake work for the Nakashima Studio, and how much creative freedom do they get to incorporate their own ideas?

There are now 11 craftsmen on staff, two of whom are brand-new, but none of them are trained in design. For this reason, we expect them to follow our shop drawings as closely as possible, but consult heavily if there are “engineering” problems which sometimes result in design revision.

11. Could you explain to those of us who haven’t come across the Altars of Peace before what they are and the concept behind these?

In 1984, a huge and beautiful Walnut log appeared, and my father dreamed that its most perfect use would be to construct Peace Altars for the world from its enormous planks. He designed, built and installed the first one at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1986, and was hoping to send one to Russia when he passed away in 1990. Since then, we have installed one at the Academy of Arts in Moscow in 2001, and at the Unity Pavilion in Auroville in 1986. We were able to establish a Global Connection between these three Sacred Tables in 2011, and hope to send a fourth one to the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2014.

Tok's Back Garden
This is the Chair Shop. The roof design is a Conoid shell constructed of plywood in 1956, and was a “mock-up” for the larger Conoid Studio built soon afterwards in reinforced concrete.

12. I’m led to believe, from what I’ve read elsewhere, that George considered himself a craftsman first and a designer second. What would you say is your approach to creating and how do your practices differ from one another?

I think that both my father and I realize that craftsmanship and design are both essential elements of what we do, and I would not be able to separate the two into ”first and second”. I think that we were both trained in design first, and craftsmanship later, but his design training, as it included Boy Scout merit badges and the Beaux Arts tradition, might have been more “craftsmanly” than mine. My father did make sure that I had hands-on experience in making and building things before I studied “design,” so he may have been putting his theory into practice, similar to the Scandinavian design traditions.

13. Your father left such a remarkable legacy behind him, his life’s work continues to enrich and inspire the lives of so many creative individuals around the world. Could you share with us a short phase or saying he would often use that you remember him fondly by?

“Keep your nose clean and create a little bit of beauty around you.”

14. I’ve read that often your mother would be busy at work in the office, with your father and his craftsmen occupied in the studio. It feels very much like a family business even today, is this something you consciously tried to continue yourself when taking over?

Mother’s bookkeeping and organizational skills were an essential part of Dad’s business, and their clients often became personal friends. Keeping the personal relationship between client and staff is important, even though most of us are no longer literal “family.” I did not consciously emulate this pattern, but it thankfully has continued to the present day and I hope will continue for many more years.

George Nakashima making some technical drawings inside his workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
George Nakashima making some technical drawings inside his workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

15. We really enjoyed seeing the house documented in Leslie Williamson’s Handcrafted Modern Book. With this in mind how important do you feel it is to continue to preserve and present the legacy of your father, and how much of an undertaking is this?

I feel that my father’s architectural work, as well as the collection of furniture housed inside, is an extremely important legacy to preserve. As the buildings are already showing their age and needing repair, it is an ever-increasing expense to maintain them. So far, the furniture business has managed to pay these expenses, but as we attain Historical Landmark status, we hope that the Nakashima Foundation for Peace will soon be able to help in the preservation of our buildings and culture for the future.

16. I’m sure you’re very busy with the foundation and the studio itself, but do you intend on designing any more objects or collections in the future? If so, could you let us in on any specific projects that you’ve got in mind?

Right now, I do not have any specific projects beyond preparing a show for the Mjolk Gallery in Toronto and another Keisho exhibit in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery in 2013, and am not yet sure what those exhibits will be.

17. To finish off, is it likely that the studio will be passed down again to the next generation, and how do you foresee the studios evolution?

It is very difficult to envision the future minus one’s own presence, but my brother Kevin and I have been working on Estate Planning for many years. My father hoped that the business would pass on to my generation and the next, so we have started gifting shares to my four children in the hopes that some of them may have a part in the future of Nakashima’s. In order to ease the transition and help in decision-making, we have recently appointed an excellent Board of Advisors which has already come up with some exciting and constructive ideas for the future.

George and Marion Nakashima, photographed with their daughter Mira. Family portrait taken by Ezra Stoller.
George and Marion Nakashima, photographed with their daughter Mira. Family portrait taken by Ezra Stoller.