March 1, 2008
George Nakashima spent a half century building up a woodworking studio in the Pennsylvania town of New Hope. Now his daughter, Mira, a craftsman in her own right, is steward of that legacy.
In a quiet residential neighborhood in New Hope, Pennsylvania, a much photographed building with a distinct International Style influence nestles among a cluster of low-slung structures, blending seamlessly with their weathered wood and stone. George Nakashima’s Conoid Studio and the surrounding buildings—a workshop and lumber-storage shed among them—form the compound where the designer spent the most productive years of his career. Working here with a small group of artisans, Nakashima developed the style, a marriage of local and Japanese craft traditions, that made him one of the defining figures of the American craft movement. The complex, which was begun in 1947, has a tinge of serendipity: it took root in New Hope organically—out of necessity, convenience, and just plain common sense. For now, it continues to thrive under the stewardship of Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, who lives across the street and runs the studio as her father did, working with 12 craftspeople, often using local materials, and producing a necessarily modest number of pieces each year, including some of her own designs.
Nakashima, who died in 1990, evolved a unique unhurried working method based on his own deep reverence for wood as a raw material, most famously expressed in his slab tables. “He was undoubtedly a major figure in the history of furniture design,” says David Revere McFadden, chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, in New York. “In the midcentury decades he was a pioneer in American craft and studio furniture. Of particular interest was the fact that he brought a clearly stated Japanese aesthetic to bear in an essentially American studio practice. His pieces kept fidelity with the natural materials he used. He never changed a tree into something that didn’t look like a tree.”
Trained as an architect, Nakashima might have followed quite a different career path had World War II not intervened. Like many Japanese-Americans, he and his family were interned by the government in labor camps on the West Coast. Sponsorship by an American citizen was one way out of the camps; that was how Antonin Raymond, an architect for whom Nakashima had worked in Tokyo and India, brought him to New Hope.
“When Mr. Raymond contacted the authorities to have us released from the camp in 1943, Dad was happy to know that the place he was going to was called New Hope,” Mira says. “That name held significance for him: he felt that he could start a new life here. Of course, while he was in Seattle he was still working part-time as an architect, and when he came out here he had to work as a chicken farmer for a while—he wasn’t too happy about that!” Furniture, its small scale being easier to execute, was a natural outlet for his creative energies, and Nakashima began building things from the materials at hand. “The stuff he made was from, you know, barn doors and things that were left lying around.” To economize, he used cast-off planks, cheap scrap from the lumber yards, and fallen trees.
Bit by bit, Nakashima was able to buy the land that would become the compound where his studio still stands today. In designing and constructing it, Mira says, her father experimented with a Modern aesthetic and new materials and techniques: “All of the buildings on the compound are oriented to the south, and that’s one of the reasons he chose the property: because of the south-facing slope. He built all along the brow of the hill. When the angle of the sun goes lower in winter, the south-facing windows capture that heat; it’s passive solar heating. He didn’t have anything terribly well insulated for the earlier buildings, so it’s not totally energy-efficient, but it was before its time.”
New Hope has changed since the Nakashima family arrived in 1943. “It used to be an artist colony when Dad first moved here,” Mira says. “There were a lot of artists, and many of them were his friends, but tourism is the industry now. Right in the middle of the town was this nice little Methodist church, and they’ve sold it to make a restaurant. It’s so sad to see a sacred space like that—it was a beautiful old church!—turn into this crass commercial restaurant.”
Still, the town remains home to Mira, who continues to find wood the way her father did, even receiving a boon from the shifting landscape. “I work mostly with the man who was the assistant to my dad’s logger,” she says. “Because of all the housing developments that are being built in Bucks County, there are lots of trees that come down. Black-walnut trees drop nuts that create an acid environment in the soil, so nothing grows very well around them and people want to take them down. We get a lot of black-walnut trees, and it’s certainly sustainable harvesting: nobody wants them.”
The Nakashima process lives on here as well, according to Gerald Everett, the workshop foreman who started in 1970. Every stage bears the stamp of the architect’s meditative approach. “I’d say the biggest change is the fact that George was a strong-willed boss. When he was around, everybody knew who was boss, and Mira is more involved in the office side of things. We’re left a bit to figure things out on our own sometimes in the workshop.” On the other hand, he says, “George would fly by the seat of his pants at times, and now it’s more regimented, more contained.”
Each tree is selected for harvest individually. After milling, its planks are allowed to air-dry—a process that can take years—before being kiln-dried, reassembled, and stacked together in the order in which they were cut. Preserving their natural sequence in this fashion ensures that wood-grain patterns are perfectly matched, a Nakashima signature. The slab of wood for each design is selected meticulously with client input before being shaped in a hands-on process: the spindles on chair backs get hand-shaved with a block plane; dovetails, butterfly joints, and other joinery are individually sized and set; and then surfaces are carefully sanded and oiled to produce smooth, lustrous finishes that accentuate the patterns of the wood grain—another Nakashima trademark. “His understanding of materials, of wood, was wonderful,” says legendary Knoll designer Jens Risom. “He had a talent for using those slabs that was quite unique.” Five of the artisans still doing all of this, including Mira, worked with George himself, and the studio produces only 400 to 500 pieces per year.
Although Nakashima felt connected to New Hope, “he always called himself a citizen of the world,” Mira says. “He felt that he was rooted in many different places. He was very fond of Paris. And then when he stayed with relatives outside of Tokyo, he felt a great connection to the land and to the culture of Japan. His mother, you know, spent six years as an attendant in the court of the Emperor Meiji in the nineteenth century. She was the assistant to the court taster.”
Unlike many Japanese-Americans who had been interned, Nakashima never downplayed his heritage. “He said he put it behind him, that it was a wound that had healed and left no scar. I am not sure that’s actually true, but he certainly dealt with it better than some,” Mira says. “In my uncle’s family in the Midwest—he was a medic in the service, so his family was not interned—his five boys were all told, ‘Don’t think you’re Japanese, don’t even think about it.’ They grew up not knowing what sushi was until their fifties!”
By contrast, Nakashima trained with an interned Japanese woodworker during his time in the camps, learning to employ the traditional techniques and tools, including the chisels and handsaws, that are illustrated in Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima, Mira’s 2003 tribute to her father. Upon arriving on the East Coast, Nakashima recognized a kindred aesthetic in the unadorned yet beautiful Shaker style, which often features natural wood grain. Both traditions employ the simple technique of butterfly joints that Nakashima put to such original use: fortifying natural splits in the wood, which he considered beautiful, so they could remain exposed in the final piece rather than being hidden as “flaws.” This marriage of two timeless traditions is a hallmark of the intangible quality that elevated Nakashima from craftsman to icon.
Unlike some children of midcentury design luminaries, Mira is not only maintaining her father’s legacy and reputation but continuing his work in a literal hands-on sense. For Mira, Harvard-educated and trained as an architect at Tokyo’s Waseda University, the process of taking over was easy in one sense: “I’d been here since 1970 working under Dad. I was familiar with the whole process and the de-signs because that’s what I’d been doing for years and years. So I guess it was natural; I’d done most everything already.”
It’s clear when Mira speaks about the soul of the wood that she shares her father’s sensibilities. “I was on a symposium once, and another contemporary woodworker was there,” she recalls. “We were talking about auction prices, and he was saying, ‘Oh, the true value of your work is manifested in the auction prices!’ And I said, ‘Are you nuts? The true value? The auction price just depends on who’s bidding!’” To her, the true worth of a piece lies in how well she has listened to the voice of the wood. “It’s very hard to pin a value on how beautiful something is,” Mira says. “For example, the free-form tables aren’t especially complicated, but they tend to get a lot more money than a cabinet, while a cabinet takes a lot more skill to construct than a table. Dad used to charge more per man-hour for the tables than the cabinets. He would say the extra work that goes into the cabinets is kind of like a service to the public.”
For Mira, it’s a delicate balance. “She’s in a tough position, serving as keeper of the flame and trying to build a legacy in her own right,” says Richard Wright, founder of Wright auction houses and an early proponent of George Nakashima’s oeuvre. A cross-section of a tree, as we all learn in grade school, keeps a kind of visual diary of what each year was like. And if there were such an organic document of the years since Nakashima’s death, the early 1990s would be rendered in fainter, more tentative lines. “The business was kind of floundering after Dad passed away in 1990,” Mira says. The renewed interest in midcentury Modern design that began after his death gave the prices of vintage Nakashima a boost, and in 1993 the James A. Michener Art Museum, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, asked Mira to design a reading room as a memorial to her father. “They had built this whole new wing—spent all kinds of money—and they gave me so much publicity it was embarrassing!” she laughs. Robert Aibel’s Moderne Gallery, in Philadelphia, began showing the vintage pieces and invited Mira to exhibit her own designs in the late ’90s. “Eventually, Architectural Digest decided to do an article about Nakashima, and that kind of started us on the road back,” she says.
Recently that imaginary tree-ring record of the Nakashima studio has added some strong lines. Mira has hired a design assistant, Miriam Carpenter, a RISD graduate from the area who was teaching at a local high school when she answered the ad. This year Knoll reissued the straight-backed walnut chair that Nakashima designed for the company in 1948; it’s now available through Design Within Reach. Mira’s cousin, John Terry, is near to completing a documentary on Nakashima’s life and work; and—in an event that brings the studio full circle—the National Arts Club will honor Mira with a Decorative Arts Gold Medal this fall. “My dad had an award there too, in 1989, just before his last show,” she explains. What’s more, Mira, now 65, is making a mark as a designer in her own right. “Speaking from the reference point of pieces I’ve sold,” Wright says, “we get the best prices when she’s working with good slabs of wood. She has the ability to channel George’s belief in the soul of a tree.”
But, ultimately, creating pieces by hand with a small group of craftspeople, many of whom have decades of experience in the workshop, is not the most flexible business model imaginable. After an unsuccessful attempt to bring in her son, an MBA, to run the business (“He was convinced that artists are irrational and can’t be trusted, and that women are the same way, only worse, so it was not a very good basis for a working relationship!”), Mira seems resigned to the idea that she may be the last Nakashima to create furniture in the studio that her father built. Carpenter, a young designer at the beginning of her career, may stay on for years—or she may not. And although she has proved to be a brilliant hire, as with any family business, bringing in outsiders presents its own set of challenges: “I put ads in for a manager, and I get all sorts of résumés from people who run meat plants or lumber stores,” Mira laments. “What am I going do with that?” For the moment, with the business thriving again, she is content to let things take their natural course. “That’s how I do the new designs. When one thing doesn’t work, you’ve got to think of something else.”