A#21

Nakashima

By Blake Abbie and Jorge Balarezo

The Conoid Studio, Nakashima Woodworkers, New Hope, United States, 2020, photography by Jorge Balarezo

In an excerpt from inside A Magazine Curated By Lucie and Luke Meier (2020), Mira Nakashima discusses the evolution of her father George Nakashima’s furniture practice and design legacy with A Magazine Curated By Editor-at-Large Blake Abbie.

An organic blend of Shaker woodworking and traditional Japanese carpentry techniques, the Nakashima design style led the American Arts and Crafts movement during the last mid-century. Establishing himself in New Hope, Pennsylvania, George Nakashima began his namesake carpentry business on a wood-covered property, a stone’s throw from the liberal artistic community. Trained as an architect in his home state of Washington and later at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the nisei or second generation Japanese-American spent an early part of his career working in his parents’ homeland for fellow American Antonín Raymond, who had an established aesthetic and architectural practice in Tokyo synthesising modern innovation with Japanese craft. George then represented Raymond’s office on a project in India before moving back to the United States.

It was shortly after his return that George chose to turn away from architecture. Disappointed with the quality of workmanship in America and frustrated with the prevalence of automation in the industry, he opened his first woodworking business in Seattle. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in WWII, George, his wife Marion, and their six-month-old Mira were incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in the Idahoan desert, where his traditional carpentry techniques improved under the tutelage of a daiku, a Japanese master carpenter. In 1943, Raymond’s petition for the release of the Nakashimas was granted, and he sponsored their move East where George eventually built the family home and workshop.

George Nakashima Woodworkers would grow over the decades with commissions for the iconic ‘Conoid’ and ‘Minguren’ designs alongside unique benches, chairs, and tables; he believed that nature should be elevated, its idiosyncrasies retained. When George passed away in 1990, Mira assumed leadership of the woodworking studio, as well as the design of new objects and furniture. She remains the caretaker of his legacy, building upon the aesthetic and craftsmanship established by her father as a distinct Nakashima language that is uniquely Japanese American.

New Hope, United States, 2020, photography by Jorge Balarezo

BLAKE ABBIE: Nakashima Woodworkers is a real family business.

MIRA NAKASHIMA: It started off as a mom-and-pop business. Dad was the creative person running the shop. Mom was running the office, schedule, and finances. I arrived in 1970, but my hours were irregular. My mother couldn’t stand it! She put up with me, but not very happily. She liked everyone to come in at 7:30am and leave at 3:30pm; I couldn’t do that because I had my children.

BA: You had moved away to start a career as an architect. What brought you back to New Hope?

MN: Dad contacted my ex-husband and me in 1969 and said, ‘I have land and will build you a house. You can come home.’ I had doubts, but my ex thought it was too good of a deal: house and land for free! So we went, and little by little I started working at the workshop – first as my mother’s gopher. I thought at one point: ‘If I do this for the rest of my life, I’m going to forget everything I learnt in architecture school!’ Dad went to MIT; he didn’t like Harvard but sent me there for my undergrad. There, I learnt freehand drawing to develop ways of expressing through images. For my masters, I went to Waseda University in Tokyo. It was a steep learning curve because I didn’t know how to draft. And it’s partly a Japanese way of thinking, but they were interested in conceptualising and verbalising what we were trying to communicate in spaces before putting pencil to paper.

BA: Did you ever consider working in design and architecture as a child?

MN: I don’t know if I was. I liked art and drawing. I did that from when I was a little tyke. I had a radio for entertainment. My brother came along when I was 13, so people in the workshop were my friends. I always felt close to them, and still do. As an only child for 13 years, I kept myself amused making stuff with leftovers in the shop and things from nature: trees, leaves, sticks. But I also did what dad told me to do. He believed if you were going to become an architect you needed to learn how to build. So he had me help build the mock-up for a thin-shell structure on our grounds when I was 16.

BM: So your father wanted you to learn from him?

MN: Yes, I guess. Though, he would be strict and dictatorial. He lost his temper with me a lot because I didn’t stay within the lines, so to speak. I didn’t do what I was told all the time.

BA: Did he ask you to partake in the workshop?

MN: No, not at all, but I kept learning as I went a long. When he built my house across the road, I had almost no input. He decided what he was going to build. That’s how it was working with dad. I did what I was told and didn’t dare complain.

BA: So, how did you make your move from the office into the workshop?

MN: When I came back, I was supposed to do the shop drawings. I thought they would be better with more detail, so I added perspectives and elevations. I looked at some of my early drawings, and they didn’t have a lot of information; that process gradually refined itself as we went along.

BA: Why is Nakashima’s wood selection so unique?

MN: Dad got into the way he did his work because he couldn’t afford the good wood at the beginning, so he’d take cutoffs from the lumberyard. After time, he was able to select logs he liked and supervise their milling. Like Michelangelo who would look at a rock and decide what it had to be, dad would look at a tree and decide what it wanted to be. Then, he would ask our logger to mill the thickness and direction of the cut accordingly. Fifty percent of what we do is here in the workshops, the other is with our logger; that is a very important part of the process.

BA: How do you select wood for a project?

MN: The wood planks sit in our lumber shed a while before being selected to make anything. But when dad would find the appropriate wood for a project, he’d sketch up the object and show the client. If they didn’t like it, he’d say, ‘Well, go to Macy’s!’ People think we have an infinite supply of wood and can get exactly what they want. They come in with a photograph and say: ‘Just like that.’ There’s nothing ‘just like that’. That’s a different log from a different time. So when we find a piece of wood that’s an appropriate size and shape for a project, we mark up the exact dimensions of what is intended on the board in chalk. Then we photograph the options to send to the client. Dad always told me not to give more than three choices because they’d get confused.

BA: You can see the wood’s future in those markings. They highlight any imperfections like knots, or where you’ll add butterfly joints…

MN: It’s interesting to conceptualise things that way. Though sometimes things turn out differently. It’s always a surprise. There can be rot, nails, or cracks you didn’t know were there.

BA: Your dad said he even found bullets. Do you maintain that practice of integrating the history of the tree into your design?

MN: We try to. A lead bullet would have been there since the Revolutionary War – a long time in
the heart of a tree. We had one tree that had swallowed its own walnut. Lodged into a crotch, it grew around it. That was a beautiful pattern. We leave it because it’s a part of its history.

BA: Why is Nakashima’s wood selection so unique?

MN: Dad got into the way he did his work because he couldn’t afford the good wood at the beginning, so he’d take cutoffs from the lumberyard. After time, he was able to select logs he liked and supervise their milling. Like Michelangelo who would look at a rock and decide what it had to be, dad would look at a tree and decide what it wanted to be. Then, he would ask our logger to mill the thickness and direction of the cut accordingly. Fifty percent of what we do is here in the workshops, the other is with our logger; that is a very important part of the process.

BA: How do you select wood for a project?

MN: The wood planks sit in our lumber shed a while before being selected to make anything. But when dad would find the appropriate wood for a project, he’d sketch up the object and show the client. If they didn’t like it, he’d say, ‘Well, go to Macy’s!’ People think we have an infinite supply of wood and can get exactly what they want. They come in with a photograph and say: ‘Just like that.’ There’s nothing ‘just like that’. That’s a different log from a different time. So when we find a piece of wood that’s an appropriate size and shape for a project, we mark up the exact dimensions of what is intended on the board in chalk. Then we photograph the options to send to the client. Dad always told me not to give more than three choices because they’d get confused.

BA: You can see the wood’s future in those markings. They highlight any imperfections like knots, or where you’ll add butterfly joints…

MN: It’s interesting to conceptualise things that way. Though sometimes things turn out differently. It’s always a surprise. There can be rot, nails, or cracks you didn’t know were there. Your dad said he even found bullets.

BA: Do you maintain that practice of integrating the history of the tree into your design?

MN: We try to. A lead bullet would have been there since the Revolutionary War – a long time in the heart of a tree. We had one tree that had swallowed its own walnut. Lodged into a crotch, it grew around it. That was a beautiful pattern. We leave it because it’s a part of its history.

The Chair Workshop, New Hope, United States, 2020, photography by Jorge Balarezo

The Conoid Studio (detail), The Showroom, New Hope, United States, 2020, photography by Jorge Balarezo

BA: Do you draw before building?

MN: Dad didn’t do shop drawings; he did beautiful, rough freehand sketches: the piece of wood being worked on and the form of the base. It’s amazing everything got built as well as it did as nothing had any specifications. Then the men in the wood-shop would take it from there. Dad would be in the shop to guide them way more than I am now. And then you never really know what the grain looks like until you get oil on it, each coat reveals more than the previous. It transforms from plain, dull wood to a piece of art. It’s not something we can control; it just happens, which is beautiful.

BA: How does your design differ from your father’s?

MN: Someone asked how our work was different, and I said, ‘I’m too close. I’ve been working on my work and my father’s for so long, so I can’t see the difference.’ But then my son said, ‘Oh, yours looks like spaceships.’ I don’t know what he meant by that. Maybe it’s sharper, longer lines…

BA: It could be said that your dad’s work was concerned with craftsmanship and the individual history of each tree, whereas your work celebrates that while also looking at how that can evolve.

MN: That may be a result of his design training. Dad had studied abroad at École des Beaux Arts at Fontainebleau in the French tradition. Even his undergraduate work in the 1920s and 1930s relied on copying design from the past, whereas mine was more abstract. I never really went through that classical training. There were a lot of projects at Harvard that had nothing to do with representation; it was just proportion and forms, and colours and shapes.

BA: What do you think shifted your dad’s approach?

MN: For him, one of the liberating things about having studied and worked in Japan in the 1950s – and what opened the doors to modernism in the 20th century – was Zen Buddhism. The Zen Buddhists value the void and the empty, and realise there can be something abstract within something concrete. They’d make grounded structures but didn’t try to manipulate forms and force the structure to support them the way the Western world did. They were grounded in the forces of nature and the way objects and buildings needed to be supported. Dad also was fascinated by architects like Félix Candela, who were actually engineers – I am too. Because of their engineering expertise, they were able to create forms similar to those found in nature.

BA: Like Zen Buddhist structures, other places of faith are an inspiration for your dad, too.

MN: He was interested in Gothic cathedrals when he studied in France, especially Chartres. And when he went to Japan, he was exposed to Buddhism and Shintoism. But I don’t think he really had a ‘conversion’ so to speak until he went to Pondicherry in India and supervised the construction and furnishing of an ashram for Sri Aurobindo from 1936 to 1939. While there, he became a disciple of the guru. That experience transformed his work into his faith. It became a spiritual happening, rather than just a temporal happening.

BA: Did your dad raise you with a sense of spirituality?

MN: Yes, dad went to church every Sunday and dragged me along. That was a quiet space to go. If he wasn’t quiet in church, he would be quiet on solo walks in the woods. That was his peace, his meditation. Dad said the ashram was an important experience. He believed Sri Aurobindo wasn’t a religion but a philosophy, and the right philosophy would serve you no matter what kind of religion you came across. I don’t claim to be anywhere near as deep as my father was.

BA: How does spirituality in any way integrate into Nakashima design?

MN: When dad wrote his book, The Soul of a Tree, I didn’t understand what it meant. One of my children’s classmate’s parents said, ‘That’s marketing; he’s just trying to sell his furniture.’ I thought: ‘Maybe you’re right.’ But it’s taken me a long time to realise he really meant it. He felt that there were spirits in trees. They had a voice in what they were and what they wanted to be. Now with age and experience, I’ve begun to understand that wisdom.

Words: Blake Abbie
Photography: Jorge Balarezo

Mira Nakashima, New Hope, United States, 2020, photography by Jorge Balarezo

A Magazine N°21 Curated By Lucie and Luke Meier

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