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.