The Woodworker’s Daughter
Mira Nakashima Creates in the Present, While Preserving the Legacy of the Past
By Wendy Greenberg | Photographs courtesy of Mira Nakashima
The Connaught Grill in London’s Mayfair neighborhood has been called legendary, known for its traditional British ambiance. After being closed for a decade, it reopened with some fanfare in early 2020, reimagined with resplendent wood wall panels, tables, and chairs, a new take on its old style.
It is unmistakably the work of George Nakashima Woodworkers, helmed now by George’s daughter Mira Nakashima. The craftsmanship is both a tribute to Mira’s father, and her personal artistry. She considers the work of George Nakashima Woodworkers not only a continuation of his legacy, but her own legacy as well.
Since her father’s death in 1990, Mira has been running the business, overseeing the designs and monitoring the upkeep of 15 buildings — residences and studios — off Aquetong Road in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and has gained her own international recognition. The Connaught is not the only recent significant project.
“The Connaught Hotel is probably the largest project we have completed in recent history,” said Mira, “although we also completed challenging projects for several boutiques with the architect Michael Gabellini; a large installation in Chicago for the Hyatt corporate headquarters; and a lounge area for the Gathering Place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by MSME Architects; each of which had a different aesthetic, initiated by the architect and modified to fit our capabilities.”
It took some time, however, after her father’s death, to show clients she was capable in the present, and at the same time loyal to the past.
Surviving George’s Death
“Unfortunately, when my father died, there was a prevalent press myth that he did everything with his own two hands,” said Mira. There were those “who insisted that because the ‘master’ was no longer alive to sign his masterpieces, the product was devalued, and canceled their orders,” she said.
Just before George Nakashima’s death, New York’s American Craft Museum (which evolved into the Museum of Arts and Design) showed a retrospective of his work, which “finally proved him an ‘artist’ rather than just a ‘woodworker’ or ‘designer-craftsman,’” said Mira. The show, while a well-deserved tribute, made Mira’s going forward more difficult in some ways.
But the American Craft Museum show had given them a three-year backlog of orders. And a loyal Princeton couple whose house and furniture collection had been lost in a fire “steadfastly believed that we could replace their entire original collection effectively.” The couple, the late Dr. Arthur and Evelyn Krosnick, formerly of Stuart Road, had what the New York Times in 1991 called “one of the largest private collections of furniture by the furniture craftsman George Nakashima.” (Their 111 pieces were surpassed only by the collection of Nelson and Happy Rockefeller in Tarrytown, New York.)
The collection took three years to replace. The Nakashima records had no sketches, but a photo essay of the Krosnick home, destined for the New York Times just before the fire, provided pictures of the entire collection. Ironically, two pieces survived because they were lent to the American Craft Museum exhibition.
But eventually, as some employees left, and the studio began to run out of work, friends stepped in to help. First, the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, commissioned Mira to design the Nakashima Reading Room in 1993 as a memorial to her father.
She also credits Robert Aibel of Philadelphia’s Moderne Gallery with boosting her confidence and teaching her that public relations was part of staying in business. “Knowing that I had to establish credibility as a designer in my own right, rather than just copying old work, he [Aibel] sponsored a show of new work, generated publicity, and we slowly came back to life,” Mira said.
The show and new designs were featured in Architectural Digest in 1994. Moderne Gallery’s The Keisho Collection: Continuity and Change in the Nakashima Tradition was the first catalogue of works designed by Mira. In 2003, she designed and produced chairs for the Concordia Chamber Players, which are now sold as the Concordia chair in the Nakashima line.
By 2006, the New York Times Art & Design section ran a headline, “Nakashima Works Keep Soaring in Value” and happened to mention the Krosnick pieces, which were auctioned at Sotheby’s when the couple moved to Arizona.
But the idea that Mira has recently come into her own may be a misinterpretation. She has always been her own person. “For 20 years,” she said, “I worked under my father as his design assistant and under my mother as her office assistant, and was often fired for speaking my mind and disagreeing with the way they ran the business.”
Taught to think outside the box and to create new paths, she often differed with her parents on issues like offering health insurance for employees before most businesses offered it. Today, she said she runs the business in a less authoritarian style.
“Since they [her parents] have been gone, it has become much more democratic,” she said of George Nakashima Woodworkers. “I confer heavily with the senior workmen and usually defer to their recommended methods of construction; they, in turn, defer to my design decisions as to final cuts and placement of butterflies [joints which stabilize or join separations in the wood].”
Mira has two design assistants who “take a lot of the initiative in problem-solving and wood searches, as well as email correspondence, photography, and generating shop drawings.” A manager oversees the scheduling of work, shipping, and payments, as well as maintenance of the property.
The staff is a combination of family and non-family. Her daughter-in-law manages sales and publicity in the office, and Mira’s husband, Jon Yarnall, is one of a team of longtime loyal craftsmen, including Gerald Everett, who is retiring after 50 years. Among her four children, the one who was interested in joining the business was left a quadriplegic after a local car accident three years ago. Of seven grandchildren, one lives close enough to help, but is still in school.
Mira is also president and treasurer of The Nakashima Foundation for Peace, which was founded by George Nakashima in 1984 in order to build his first Altar for Peace, placed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1986. Since then, peace altars have been sent to Auroville, India, and to Moscow, through donations to the Foundation. When Mira’s mother gave one of the New Hope buildings to the Foundation before she died in 2004, the Foundation took on a second mission — to preserve the Nakashima legacy of architecture as well as the furniture collection. The buildings are on the Pennsylvania National Register of Historic Places, have been designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and are listed as World Monuments.
But the current health pandemic has taken a toll. Saturday open houses and tours of the property were shut down in March, and there are no plans to resume tours until the pandemic is under control. “So our main sources of Foundation income have decreased to almost nothing this year, but we feel it is most important to ensure the health of our woodworkers,” said Mira. Specialized videos and virtual guided tours to support the Peace Foundation are planned, and George’s nephew John Nakashima premiered the documentary George Nakashima on October 2 through the Design Miami website.
Like her younger brother Kevin, Mira grew up where she now works and lives. Her favorite spot, pressed to name one, is in the Reception House, “as it does not get used often, so is usually quiet and dark,” she said. There, a “a four-and-a-half-mat, Japanese-style room” reminds her of her time spent in Japan, of a tea ceremony with “my dear Aunt Milly (friend and textile artist Mildred Johnstone), and zen meditation.” She loves the “big, beautiful dining table” where her mother served dinner for the family and friends, as well as a Japanese bath “where each of my children were invited to create their own designs and write their names in the tile.” Her father once performed a wedding ceremony in the Reception House, but now it is used for special meetings “as the seating around the table is conducive to creative, collaborative thinking,” she said.
Her father came to New Hope by way of Spokane, Washington, where he was born in 1905, and Seattle, where he grew up. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington, where he also spent two years studying forestry. After earning a master’s degree from MIT, he traveled, earned a diploma from the École Américaine des Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau, France, and spent time in Tokyo where he worked for the Czech architect Antonin Raymond. It was there he met Marion Okajima, from Seattle, whom he married, and they returned to Seattle where he made furniture and taught woodworking.
When Mira was an infant, the family was sent to Minidoka, in Idaho, a so-called “relocation center” where some 9,000 of the 120,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans were sent, according to the Minidoka website.
“The World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans was but another example of racial discrimination which is unfortunately repeated in many forms to this day,” said Mira. “I was a newborn baby in 1942, and somehow survived, but my father actually felt very fortunate to work alongside a master carpenter, trained in Japan, while he was there.” In 1943, the Nakashima family was sponsored by the carpenter’s former employer in Tokyo, Antonin Raymond, who then lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and was able to leave the camp.
“My father thought it was prophetic that the town was called “New Hope,” and made many friends in the artists’ community which flourished here in the 1940s,” said Mira. Through the generosity of a Quaker farmer, a fellow graduate of MIT, who owned the Aquetong Road property, George Nakashima was able to settle on the current land.
He set up his business as a protest to mass production, said Mira. He became known for large-scale tables made of large wood slabs with natural grain and smooth tops but unfinished natural edges. “The ‘uniqueness’ imparted by the imperfections,’’ the elder artist wrote in an essay for the American Craft Museum exhibition’s catalogue, “makes these pieces appealing.’’ Part of his mission, he wrote, was to “give some trees a fitting and noble purpose, helping them live again.’’
Mira, now president and creative director for George Nakashima Woodworkers, holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Harvard, and a master’s degree in architecture from Waseda University in Tokyo. She moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her former husband, and returned with their young family to New Hope in 1970 and began to assist her father.
Historically there have not been many female woodworkers, though one of Mira’s assistant designers is also female.
“It is just in recent years that several female woodworkers and furniture designers have come to light, and it is good to have their company. I, however, studied architecture during a time when there were very few women in the field, and hope that I was not judged differently than my contemporaries just because I was female. Although I am proud to be among the first women from Radcliffe College [the former women’s affiliate to the then-all male Harvard] to receive a Harvard degree, I never felt that I should feel especially privileged because of that, and I feel the same way about being a female furniture designer.”
A Respect for Wood
Growing up surrounded by a reverence for wood, Mira acquired the same love and respect for wood. She still works with “hundreds of thousands” of pieces in storage, many of which had been purchased and milled by her father.
“We are almost completely dependent on one local logger who has been finding and processing trees for us since my father’s time,” she explained. “We primarily use walnut logs which have been harvested sustainably from nearby in Pennsylvania, trees that have been cleared for housing developments or roads, and custom-mill them in different thicknesses for different purposes, through and through, so that they retain their natural edges.”
The wood, most of which is from Bucks County, is separated with sticks and carefully stacked to allow air to pass between planks and dry naturally for several years. When the planks reach a certain moisture content, they are placed in a kiln and further dried to so that the wood will be stable when made into furniture. After that, the sticks are removed and the lumber is “dead-piled” in sheds “so we can select from them for as near perfect matching as possible,” said Mira. “Depending on the size and thickness, we sometimes draw on piles of wood collected by my father from long ago, and sometimes, as in the case of The Connaught Hotel, wood that has been newly harvested and dried.”
In the case of The Connaught Grill, the wood drying process had to be modified. The architect envisioned not only wood-paneled booths, “but 15 tables of varying sizes, and banquette seating within the booth styled like our cantilevered Conoid chairs,” said Mira. “We were quite concerned that we did not have enough black walnut of the proper size and thickness to complete the job as originally envisioned, so we worked through different options and modifications with the flexible and imaginative architect John Heah. When we finally settled on a solution, we set out on a search to find a number of fresh walnut logs of the proper size, cut them to the proper thickness, and set about drying them faster than we have ever dried lumber before.”
The vision to re-create a new atmosphere while retaining a sense of the traditional paneling was “easier said than done,” said Mira.
Asked if it was important to balance preserving the Nakashima legacy and also show her own artistry, Mira answered that she doesn’t see it that way. “I never perceived that there was a definite divide between doing one or the other. Preserving the Nakashima legacy and utilizing my father’s wood pile to make beautiful furniture is most important, and continuing that legacy is my legacy, too.”
What is important now, Mira said, is “to cultivate and preserve the art of using and respecting natural materials, drawing by hand on paper with pencils, making furniture with both hand and power tools, preserving a place in which work is an integrated process, the place itself integrated with its natural environment.
“We strive to continue making furniture and to maintain the property as ‘George would have done’ so that his spirit still lives here.”
More information about made-to-order furniture can be found at nakashimawoodworkers.com.