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Mira Nakashima photographed in the Nakashima Arts Building, erected in 1967. The building, home to the Nakashima Foundation for Peace is used for concerts and events for peace. Photo: Jake Price for Japan Contemporaries 

Mira Nakashima Interview-PLEASE NOTE THIS IS AN ADVANCED DRAFT WITH MINOR CHANGES AND PHOTO TONING PENDING

By Kyoko Sato & Jake Price, April 17, 2024

Following the release of The Nakashima Process Book by Mira Nakashima and an exhibit featuring her work at the 1950s Gallery which closes 5/23/24 or until sold, Japan Contemporaries spoke with her to understand her process, history and future of George Nakashima Woodworks that still relies on human craftsmanship in an age of factory produced furniture and Artificial Intelligence.

 

As much as furniture making is a physical process, to Mira it has an element of the transcendent. “Working with one's hands and without (automated) machines brings a whole new level of consciousness," she said. Made possible through the tactile process this heightened consciousness is ultimately transmitted into the furniture. She continued: "Every piece is individual and there will never be another like it. We consider and individually construct every single joint in every piece we've made.” 

The reverence for meticulous hand craftsmanship was instilled by Mira's father, George, who founded Nakashima Woodworkers in the 1940s. Of his process, he remarked, “Each flitch, each board, each plank can have only one ideal use. The woodworker, applying a thousand skills, must find that ideal use and then shape the wood to realize its true potential.” This potential, he believed, resided in the wood's raw state. George meticulously sourced his materials from salvaged or fallen trees, prioritizing solid wood over processed materials. This approach not only reflected his environmental ethos but also contributed to the distinctive aesthetic of his furniture, characterized by organic shapes and flowing lines.

Much of George’s philosophy was influenced during World War II when the United States incarcerated all Japanese Americans on the West Coast. Forced to leave their home in Seattle, the Nakashimas were confined to live behind barbed wire in the Minidoka concentration camp (euphemistically called a “relocation center”) in Idaho during World War II.

While in the concentration camp, George met and befriended the master Japanese carpenter Gentaro Hikogawa and that experience profoundly shaped his life. Of his time in the camp George said, "The time was not entirely lost. There was wood, and a very fine Japanese carpenter, so I became his designer and his apprentice at the same time." In Japan, working with a master carpenter of Hikogawa’s stature would have not been possible, but in the camp these distinctions vanished. People used what they could to get by, both in terms of human relationships and material scarcity. The use of scarce materials and the depth of human engagement he experienced in the harsh conditions would inform George for the rest of his life.

While in Minidoka, George used wood scraps from the construction of the camp and packing crates to make furniture in order to make conditions more bearable. The camp was surrounded by bitter brush, a tough, drought-tolerant shrub. Others in the camp collected and polished the branches of the shrub, and George used the shrub as accents to his piece. Through the use of these materials, George's unique woodworking style began to emerge. He embraced the imperfections and natural textures of the wood, leaving the tree's exterior visible in his pieces. This approach, now known as "live edge" woodworking, was born out of George's ability to find beauty in the overlooked.

George was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). One of his professors, aware that George was living behind barbed wire, tracked him down. Through his former employer Antonin Raymond, George was sponsored through an early release from internment.

As the first Sakura blossoms came to life, we arrived on an overcast day. Guided by Mira through the many rooms on the property, all of which face south, gentle light filtered into the wooden rooms and studios crafted by George. These structures exuded tranquility, their interiors imbued with the unmistakable scent of hinoki oil, evoking the ambiance of traditional Japanese homes.

After his passing in 1990 Mira continues to bring this ethos of peace to the company today. We spoke with her about the history and her progressive and pragmatic management of the company and of her own masterful work.

Preserving Tradition in a Changing World as the Head of Nakashima Woodworkers

Japan Contemporaries (JC): How do you feel about being third generations of Japanese descent in the US? 

Mira Nakashima- Yarnall: Growing up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, we were the only Japanese American family around, and there was still a fair amount of post-war prejudice among my classmates at school.  They used to tease me because I looked different so I tried to be as American as possible, and to study hard to get good grades. When I was in college, there were only a few “orientals” in my class, but I felt more accepted because there were students from other countries. I didn’t know much about the internment until 2004.

JC: Although you were too young to remember your experience in the camp, you have since researched your time there and that of others—looking back on it, how has this influenced your work and your deep investment in the furtherance of peace?

MN: I was so young during the incarceration I don’t remember anything, and was still very young when we moved to the Raymond Farm, but I am extremely grateful to the Raymond Family for sponsoring us to leave camp.  I don’t remember ever feeling deprived or hungry in camp, because my aunt Thelma took good care of me, but my mother was probably a bit traumatized. My parents never talked about the incarceration, so I started learning about it after my mother passed in 2004.

I am not sure that the camp itself influenced my thinking; but the environment that my father built here in New Hope has increasingly become a haven for peace and source of inspiration.

JC: George offered you a job in 1970. How did that happen? 

 

MN: Good question! I don’t know exactly how or why it happened.  We were living in Pittsburgh and my father told me he had bought some land and was planning to build me a house.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back home, but my ex-husband thought it was an offer too good to refuse, so we moved home with our three small children. 

After we had settled in, my parents offered me a job, I was a bit annoyed that I was unable to keep regular hours because of the children, and made me punch the clock and figure out my own pay hours. I suspect it might have been a lawyer friend who was concerned about the future of the business, and estate planning.

JC: George fired you quite a few times! Why did that happen? 

MN: My parents had sent me to Harvard College, where we’re taught to think outside the box and to question authority. My father was of Samurai heritage, raised in a patriarchal society, and was educated in an era when architects’ authority was not to be questioned. When I arrived, there was no insurance of any kind and no benefits for the employees, and I thought that should be changed, so I was fired. I can’t remember the other issues, but my children got so used to it that when they saw me coming home at some odd hour they would ask me if I got fired again!

Editors note: The philosophy of Nakashima Woodworkers embodies the philosophy of shokunin (職人)which literally translated is "craftsman’ or ‘artisan," but which has many other connotations. The shokunin approach emphasizes the pursuit of mastery over a lifetime, rather than quick success. Shokunin see their craft as a lifelong journey of continuous improvement and learning, rather than a means to an end. In order to achieve an environment of learning and exploration condusive to mastery of a craft an environment of selflessness and social responsibility is essential. The shokunin mindset includes a sense of social responsibility, where the owner is dedicated to providing the best possible experience for their customers and contributing to the well-being of their community.

JC: Could you tell us about the relationship with your father?

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​MN: When I was very young, my father used to boast about how wonderful I was.  After he had taught me five words in five different languages, he used to say I was like the children in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and could speak five languages!  My mother taught me to read and write before first grade, so I skipped first grade after my brother was born and I entered high school, it went downhill for the “built-in baby-sitter,” but dad was very proud when I was accepted at both Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr Colleges. My father came to my wedding in Japan but my mother did not.

JC: How have you assimilated all the elements of Soetsu Yanagi (Mingei), Antonin Raymond (Architect), and the Shakers, which George absorbed?

 

MN: I absorbed a bit of the Shaker way of thinking when my second husband and I took the children to visit a Shaker village in Massachusetts. I found a book on Shaker furniture in the Studio and studied it when I wrote my book “Nature Form and Spirit” in 2003.  I didn’t read “The Unknown Craftsman” by Soetsu Yanagi until I went to Japan with my cousin John Terry to film his documentary in the year 2000, and it gave my drafts new form and dimension.

JC: How did he learn about Shaker’s furniture? How did that affect you?

MN: Dad’s best friend in Seattle was the artist Morris Graves, who gave Dad a book on 
Shaker philosophy and furniture in the early 1940s.  The Quakers in Pennsylvania and the 
Shakers in other places were not that far apart, and Dad embraced the simple utilitarian honesty of their designs and workmanship. I just grew up with it.

JC: Have you worked with Isamu Noguchi or was it only a show that you created with him? add previous link


MN: I have not worked with Isamu, nor did Dad.  After they were both gone, I put together a show of Nakashima furniture and Akari sculptures in Washington DC  and wished it had happened while they were both alive!

JC: You designed 17 new works for George Nakashima Woodworkers. How have you adopted your new designs to your father’s tradition?

 

MN: Basically, we have maintained my father’s tradition by adhering to the “old-fashioned” methods of production, as well as working with the lumber he left behind. Occasionally, there is a really odd piece of lumber or client request that will not conform very well to the old designs, so we invent new ones…but work within the limits of our existing technology. I worked under my father’s supervision for 20 years, sometimes tweaking things when he wasn’t looking, so I just continued. Evelyn Krosnick  (designer and client) and Robert Aibel (Moderne Gallery) encouraged me to experiment!

TIME IN JAPAN & SPIRITUALITY

JC: You studied Architecture in Waseda University (graduated 1966). Why did you go there?

MN: I went to Japan the first time after graduating from college in 1963, with my godmother Mildred Johnstone and Alan Watts as our leader.  When the tour was over, Aunt Milly went to Urasenke Tea Ceremony school in Kyoto and I studied Japanese in Tokyo while staying with my real Aunt Thelma.  My father had two Architect friends in Tokyo from his days at the Raymond Office, Junzo Yoshimura and John Minami. Because I didn’t know Japanese very well, Yoshimura said I could be a special student at Geidai, but Minami said I could earn a real degree at Waseda, so I chose Waseda.

 

JC: Was it the first time to visit in Japan?

MN: The first time I got off the plane in Tokyo, I fit right in, because everyone was the same size as me and had the same color hair!  But, because I was with an American tour, I looked like I should understand Japanese and I could hardly understand anything!  After the tour, I stayed with Aunt Thelma, who lived among several other Americans, and I studied Japanese intensively. When I entered University, my classmates all wanted to learn English, so they helped me translate all the lectures I couldn’t understand!  After I married one of my classmates, I enjoyed pretending I was really Japanese, and sometimes fooled people!

JC: You wrote about sacred spaces in graduate thesis when you studied at Waseda University. Could you tell me about? 

MN: My father had built a wooden church in Karuizawa when he was at the Raymond office, and designed another reinforced concrete one in Kyoto when I was in graduate school which became my responsibility to oversee. Tange Kenzo’s Cathedral and Olympic buildings were under construction, so It seemed a natural thing to write about what makes Sacred Spaces sacred.

JC: George learned spirituality while he was in India.  I heard you were named after Indian spiritual leader. How did that affect you? 

MN: India was a mystery to me until my second husband and I went there after my father’s death.  I couldn’t figure out how Dad could follow Sri Aurobindo and be a catholic, but as Aurobindo practiced the integral Yoga, there was no conflict between any of the religions.

JC: George described himself as Hindu Catholic Shaker Japanese American. When did George become Catholic and why?

MN: When Dad was first starting out in Seattle, he had no real workshop excepting that loaned to him by the catholic Maryknoll Missionaries in Seattle.  Father Leopold Tibesar was ministering to the Japanese American community and continued to do so when they were incarcerated, and commissioned one of Dad’s first projects in Karuizawa, later in Kyoto, and baptized Dad with no instruction.  Dad always considered himself Catholic with a small “c” and felt no boundaries between that and other religons. 


JC: Are you Catholic as well?

MN: Yes, but I was not baptized until I was about 13.

JC: Sakura Seisakujo is only one place who can create Nakashima furniture outside your company. How did it happen? How do you work with them? 


MN: In 1964, the sculptor Masayuki Nagare (1923-2018) built his “Stone Crazy” wall for the World's Fair in New York.  Dad invited him and his stonemasons to come to New Hope for steak dinner, which they did, and invited my father to visit them in Takamatsu some day.


As I was attending Waseda at the time, Dad came to visit me and took me to Takamatsu to meet Nagare, the stone masons and the Minguren group of artisans who were trying to preserve the old craft traditions by adapting them to modern design.  They invited Dad to do a show made in Takamatsu and exhibited in Tokyo, and it was so successful they kept inviting him back to do more shows.  During the process, Dad became very fond of the Japanese woodworkers particularly at Sakura Seisakusho, enjoyed producing shows there, and became good friends with the Nagami’s. I first went there in 1988 because dad was too busy preparing his retrospective show at the American Craft Museum, and was surprised that they treated me as if I were my father!  We too have been friends ever sinceand we have been working with the next generations at Sakura. We did a show for them last September.

 

JC: Who are you major influences from Japanese culture?

MN: My aunt Milly Johnstone was one of my father’s first sponsors, had danced with Martha Graham on Isamu Noguchi’s sets, and fell in love with the Japanese aesthetic.  She took me on my first trip to Japan, where we learned a lot about Zen Buddhism, poetry, painting, tea ceremony and architecture.

UNIQUE TECHNIQUE

JC: The Conoid Studio was completed in 1959. What is the meaning of conoid?

MN: The Conoid Studio was named after its shape, generated from a section of a cone.

JC: How many buildings did George build in this location?

MN: 12 major and three smaller buildings.

JC: Have you built any building on the property yourself?

MN: Yes the Pole Barn. And I helped Dad build the stone wall of the House when I was about 5, then the mockup for 
the Pool House when I was about 17.

 

JC: How and when did George learn about the butterfly technique?

MN: I am pretty sure Dad must have known about butterflies when he was working for Raymond, but the actual inlay technique he might have learned from Gentaro Hikogawa when we were incarcerated at Minidoka during the war.

JC: I believe your furniture are all made without nails. Is this practice still followed? 

MN: We have never used nails, but we do use screws and glue, and occasionally small tacks.
 

JC: What kind of material have you been using for paper look material for lamps? 

MN: We used to use fiberglass, but now we use hand-made Washi paper laminated to a fire resistant plastic of some kind made by Hiro Odaira (creator of Washi art based in New York called Precious Pieces).

JC: How many kinds of woods do you use? Where are they from?

MN: We have about 50 species of wood available, but mostly Pennsylvania Black Walnut, Ash and Cherry.  We do have some California Redwood roots, Maple and Myrtle burl from Oregon, some Persian and English Walnut from my father’s time, a small amount of English Oak Burl and Scottish Elm Burl. 

JC: How many kinds of woods do you use? Where are they from?

MN: We have about 50 species of wood available, but mostly Pennsylvania Black Walnut, Ash and Cherry.  We do have some California Redwood roots, Maple and Myrtle burl from Oregon, some Persian and English Walnut from my father’s time, a small amount of English Oak Burl and Scottish Elm Burl. 

NAKASHIMA FOUNDATION FOR PEACE & THE FUTURE

JC: Could you tell me about the Foundation?

MN: The Foundation was begun in 1984 by my father in order to fund his dream to create Altars for Peace On each continent of the world.  After his passing in 1990, we extended its mission to help preserve and protect all of his buildings and their contents on the property, and again to include programs to teach non violent conflict resolution and other ways to create a peaceful world. Right now, we do not have any concrete Altar sites selected, but are still searching.

JC: You have spoken about how we all are residents of this one planet in a video on your website.  What did you feel about discrimination against asian during the recent pandemic? 

​MN: I think anti Asian discrimination has always been worse on the West Coast because many of us had settled there before the War.  Dad always said it was stupid.  Blaming COVID-19 on all Asians was also stupid but human beings always seem to need someone to pick on and put down and blame for their own troubles.

JC: What is your vision for the future George Nakashima Woodworkers?

The future of Nakashima’s remains to be seen.  It would be nice to have a family member involved, but as long as there are good workers here who understand and respect the Nakashima tradition. 

If it is family they have to work onsite.  It cannot be done remotely. I now have two wonderful design assistants who are very hands-on as it should be, plus my grandson Toshi (Katsutoshi Amagasu) who is still in training and has not yet finished college. Toshi’s parents Soomi Hahn Amagasu and Satoru Amagasu have been great contributors for the team. We also are looking forward to our two newest woodworkers, one of whom is working part time because she is still in school, and another Japanese American craftswoman who has just finished up a year of training at a Japanese craft school!

Mira Nakashima-designed furniture is available at the 1950 Gallery located on 44 East 11th Street New York, NY 10003, featuring exquisite pieces such as a 14-foot American walnut dining table adorned with a Michiko base, complemented by 14 armchairs, a design celebrated with a prestigious prize in Brussels in 1954. Additionally, the gallery showcases an exceptional English walnut root coffee table accompanied by eight Conoid lounge chairs.

Nakashima Woodworkers Visits


Appointments can be made Monday through Friday from 9am-5pm or Saturday from 1:00pm-4:30pm (excluding all major holidays)


Please call 215-862-2272 to make a design appointment or for more information on starting the Nakashima Design Process make an inquiry.

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Kyoko Sato, Editor-in-Chief, has written for Art Review City, Shukan NY Seikatsu, New York Standard on Gallery Tagboat and ONBEAT. She founded the Asian Programming at WhiteBox, and served as its director from 2018 to 2021.

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