Mira Nakashima on Keeping Her Father’s Woodworking Legacy Alive
In art and design circles, the name George Nakashima is synonymous with expert woodworking, exquisite furniture, and high-quality craftsmanship. Over the past 30-plus years, his daughter, the architect and furniture maker Mira Nakashima, has not only artfully built upon his techniques and time-honored traditions, further cementing his legacy, but also stepped outside of his shadow and carved a name for herself.
Having grown up as an apprentice of sorts under her father’s wing, Mira has been working full-time at George Nakashima Woodworkers since 1970 (she joined the business at the age of 28), and upon her father’s death in 1990, she took over as its president and creative director. Since then, she has carried on his unfinished projects , continued producing dozens of his designs, and also developed many of her own creations, including her Keisho and Shoki furniture lines. In 2003, she published Nature Form & Spirit, a retrospective of her father’s life and work—an expansion, in some ways, of George’s totemic The Soul of a Tree (1981). Through it all, Mira has remained as humble as ever and maintained a deep reverence for her father, his boundless creativity, and his exacting vision. “When you come into this property, you do have a sense that it’s different from other places, that there is this sense of peace,” says Mira on this episode of Time Sensitive. “It’s partly through the architecture, but it’s partly through the spirit of the land and the spirit of my father, which lives on here.”
On this episode—recorded in the Sanso Villa on the grounds of the George Nakashima Woodworkers compound in New Hope, Pennsylvania—Nakashima talks about her family’s time spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II; the enduring “karma yoga” influence of the Indian philosopher and spiritual leader Sri Aurobindo, whom her father once studied under and worked for as an architect; and why her father considered his work “an antidote to the modern world.”
Nakashima discusses the Nakashima Foundation for Peace and the three “Altars for Peace” that have been completed to date: one in New York (1986), one in Moscow (1989), and one in Auroville, India (1996). She also talks about her and her father’s engagement with the sacred and divine more broadly.
Nakashima speaks to the alchemical identity of her father, who considered himself a “Japanese druid” as well as a “Hindu Catholic Shaker Japanese American.” She also reflects on her family’s samurai legacy and their time spent in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Nakashima considers how the “karma yoga” principles of the Indian philosopher, yogi, maharishi, and poet Sri Aurobindo influenced her father, who worked for him as an architect on India’s first modernist building, the Golconde dormitory, in Pondicherry.
Nakashima reflects on time from the perspective of trees and in relation to the medium of wood. She also juxtaposes the two decades she spent working with her father with the three-plus decades running the family business since his death.
Nakashima talks about the process of taking over George Nakashima Woodworkers following her father’s passing, including the many unfinished projects she inherited, such as rebuilding a furniture collection that a family had lost in a fire.
Nakashima discusses how she views her father’s legacy, and how she’s chosen to carry it forth with the values he instilled in her.
SPENCER BAILEY: Hi Mira, welcome to Time Sensitive.
MIRA NAKASHIMA: Thank you. Nice to see you.
SB: I thought we’d start today’s conversation on the subject of peace. In 1995, you formed the Nakashima Foundation for Peace, and your father, [George Nakashima], dreamed of designing peace altars all over the world. In 1986, he was able to attend the consecration of his first peace altar at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. And when he died in 1990, I understand flowers were placed upon it at an interfaith memorial service to him.
Another peace altar was also installed at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow, in 1989, and a third one was consecrated in Auroville, India, in 1996. Could you share a bit about the mission of this foundation, and also your dad’s vision for the peace altars?
MN: Well, first of all, the Foundation for Peace started percolating in 1984 with the acquisition of this humongous walnut log that inspired my father to make Altars for Peace. So the Peace Foundation has been in existence since around 1985.
He wanted these altars to be in every continent of the world someday, and he wanted it to be a people-to-people movement. He said when governments and big corporations get involved with their money, you can’t attain peace. But on a personal level, if everybody just gave ten dollars each, in all the continents of the world, then we would have money to build peace altars on each continent, and everyone in those countries would be involved.
That was his dream. We haven’t gotten very far with that dream. His first altar was created in 1986, and then when he passed away, in 1990, he had several files of contacts, which he had acquired over the years to try to place a peace altar in Russia. Russia was churning, and things were turning over, and he thought he had a contact and a place to send a peace altar. Then they would change the administration, and nobody knew what he was talking about, and he’d have to start all over again.
Irene Goldman, who’s one of my friends and colleagues, had come. She majored in Russian and speaks Russian fluently, and has a number of Russian artists as friends, and she had brought over a group of Russian artists to visit the studio. Dad was so inspired with these Russian artists visiting the studio he got up and started spouting off a poem in Russian. And these Russian people were wondering if their ears were telling them the truth or not. Here they were in the U.S.A. in a house that looked Japanese with this man who looked Japanese, and he was speaking Russian to them. And they couldn’t figure out why that happened.
It turned out that, when my father was in Paris, his best friend was a Russian expatriate, and they used to teach each other their languages in their spare time, I guess. Dad taught him Japanese, and he taught Dad some Russian. He had memorized that poem in the 1930s, and it just bubbled to the surface and came out with this group of Russian artists.
Among those artist people was one person who eventually became the vice president of the Academy of Arts in Moscow, and they were fascinated by the idea of peace altars. And Irene Goldman maintained contact with her artist friends in Moscow—when things were friendlier, and we eventually found a home.
Dad had been searching all over Moscow to…. not all over Moscow, all over Russia, to find an appropriate place and an appropriate organization to host an Altar for Peace. There were many problems. One was space, one was the organization, and the willingness to host programs around a peace altar.
But Irene, after, I think it was twelve years of traveling back and forth and talking to all different kinds of people, eventually settled on the Academy of Arts in the middle of Moscow, because one of those artists had come to the studio on that particular day. And we sent the peace altar there and we created it in 19…. I think it was 1996 or 1997.
But it didn’t get to Moscow until 2001, I think it was. It had gone to the Hague Appeal for Peace in 1999 and then was in storage, and they couldn’t find a plane that was big enough to carry it to Moscow. It finally got there. We finally installed it in maybe one of the very few ecumenical celebrations, in Moscow in 2001.
That was the long culmination of a dream for peace. I don’t know whether it’s actually brought us any closer to peace or not, but that was his dream. And then when my father passed away, in 1990, we decided that the second mission of our peace foundation should be to preserve the Nakashima properties. There’s a lot of really extraordinary architecture on the property here, and we hope that it will be preserved for generations to come.
We thought that because we already had a nonprofit in existence that we would revise the bylaws to include the preservation of the Nakashima legacy. That increased its responsibilities a great deal. I think when you come into this property, you do have a sense that it’s different from other places, that there is this sense of peace, and it’s partly through the architecture, but it’s partly through the spirit of the land and the spirit of my father, which lives on here. Anyway, that’s sort of why we’re here. [Laughs]
SB: Yeah, it’s incredible. I mean, I realize I probably got a couple of those dates wrong with the peace altars because there was so much happening, I feel like, at once. Especially toward the end of your father’s life, he was still bubbling and bursting with ideas until the very end. [Laughs]
MN: Yeah, he was.
SB: And being here in this place, I love that you drew this connection both in terms of extending the mission and vision for the foundation, but also the fact that when you are here, there is this sense of peace that comes over you. I would also say there’s a sense of sacred space that you feel [here]. Would you agree with that?
MN: I do, yes, and the building where we are sitting now, the Reception House, was the last building my father built. This was built in 1975. And he built a dining table for this building, which was almost exactly the same shape as our peace altars, but it was before he acquired the wood for his peace altar project. When I bring tours in here, I tell them this was the prototype peace altar, and it’s a wonderful shape. The Russians used to speak of it too. They said there was something called okrugli stol, a “round table” in Russian, and it has not just the implication that it is round, but that it brings people together in a different way than a rectangular table does.
It’s sort of a free-form round, but it does have a unifying effect. If you’re sitting around a table that shape, you end up in one conversation instead of in several little conversations as you tend to do with a rectangular table.
SB: Well, I love the notion of a table as an altar because we think of altars and they’re all about presentation. You’re standing at the altar, but with a table, you have this…. You’re sitting, and you’re coming together. It’s a place of breaking bread, of having dialogue.
MN: Yes, mm-hmm, and that was…. Although Dad really believed that it should be a sacred table, which is why it was called a peace altar. And then when we went to Moscow, they said, “Oh, you can’t call it an altar because an altar has specific dimensions and a specific place and a specific church.” We wanted it to be universally acceptable, so we started calling it the Sacred Peace Table.
And I think my father…. I don’t know, I think he wanted it to be used as a ritual center when he had it. He described his dream: He thought that people would come in processions, and they would bring flowers and put them on the table, and they would burn incense and sing songs and say prayers around the table. Not necessarily to sit and eat as we do at this table, but I think it will have many uses in each place it goes, and I hope it has more homes than it does now.
The one in India we made at a lower height so that people actually could sit at it, and they use it mostly for meetings, and that’s a wonderful thing to do, too. And they’re international meetings. In the City of Auroville, India, there, it’s an international community, and for years they had no place to gather and to sort out their differences because they all had different interpretations of Sri Aurobindo’s philosophy and how it applied to society and this, that, and the other thing.
I guess they were prone to having arguments, and the table has actually been a very unifying effect in Auroville, and that’s a beautiful thing too. [Laughs] I think each continent it goes to is going to have a different flavor—
MN: —And they certainly have so far.
The one in New York, the original one, with the previous pastor, it was used daily for Spanish mass—I think it was Spanish mass—and now they tucked it into an alcove and I’m not sure if it gets used the way it was supposed to or not, but that was the original intention, that it would be used.
Dad was very insistent that people use their furniture. I mean, we delivered a table to a friend this week, and she said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful, we don’t want to use it!” And then we have sent furniture to people’s homes and they say, “We spilled something on it. Oh, we scratched it, what do we do?!” And Dad would always tell them, “Just use it.” [Laughter] “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” In fact, he said, “There’s nothing so uninteresting as a perfect finish.” We try to do a perfect finish before it leaves, but it’s meant to be lived-in.
SB: It’s called a patina. [Laughs]
MN: Well, in my dad’s time, it was called “Kevinizing.” It was named after my little brother.
SB: He would nick it up?
MN: Yeah, yep.
SB: Beyond the peace altars and just continuing this sacred space idea, it’s something that’s so central to your father’s work, but also to your work. I know that in 2000 you created doors for the congregation Bnai Keshet in Montclair, New Jersey. Your father designed a series of churches—architectural spaces—including a renovation of a church here in New Hope. And for a Benedictine community, a monastery in New Mexico, as well as a retreat center near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Your dad also did a chapel and furnishings for a space in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. A place where, later, you were asked to develop designs yourself. Could you talk a little bit about this engagement with the sacred and the divine, and how you think about it in the context of your work and your dad’s work?
MN: Well, I think my father started his business through his love and respect for trees. I mean, that was something that he grew up with. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest and he was in Boy Scouts, and he used to do a lot of hiking, some of it solo hiking. And he developed this respect for nature and for trees. Because of that, he went to the University of Washington and studied forestry for two years before he switched to architecture.
And then, eventually, he went through a lot of architectural work. He graduated from MIT in 1930 and decided the best thing to do during the Depression was to travel around the world. He sold his car and bought a steamship ticket around the world and went back to Paris and bummed around Paris, where he bumped into Ivan Wyschnegradsky, the Russian expatriate.
Then he eventually ended up in Japan and worked in the office of Antonin Raymond from 1934 to ’39. No, actually, it wasn’t ’39. He left the Raymond office in 1938 to become a disciple of Sri Aurobindo because he was working on Golconde, and he thought he was going to stay there the rest of his life.
I think it was partly because of the experience of being alone on the mountaintop in the Pacific Northwest that he had this respect for nature and love of trees. And then, when he was building Golconde, he had a very, very strong sense of the sacredness in materials. He brought all of that with him when he came and saw what they were doing in architecture in the U.S.A. and decided he was going to make furniture instead.
He said if he had to make it out of plastic or steel, he wouldn’t want to make furniture. He only wanted to make it out of wood. Because that’s what he loved.
SB: Your dad considered himself a “Japanese druid.” He also identified as a “Hindu Catholic Shaker Japanese American.” I was hoping maybe you could speak to this alchemy of identities and how it comes to life in his work and here at the Nakashima compound, and also, I think in your life and work. I’d love to hear how that identity filtered down to you.
MN: Well, that’s a pretty complex identity. [Laughter] The Japanese American, of course, is just in our blood. Dad’s parents were immigrants. They came from Japan around the turn of the century, and they lived on the West Coast, where there was a stronger Japanese community than there is on the East Coast. But during the war, we were all incarcerated because we looked like we were part of the people who were fighting the war on the other side of the Pacific.
SB: And you were just six months old, right?
MN: I was only six weeks old.
SB: Six weeks, wow.
MN: Yeah. I don’t remember very much, luckily. But Dad was interesting. He was second-generation Japanese, which are called Nisei, and most of the Nisei that I knew, I didn’t know that many because we moved to the East Coast, and that happened, thankfully, through dad’s former employer Antonin Raymond who had left Japan and bought an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania and sponsored us to leave camp.
Dad was employed as a chicken farmer, but it did get us out of camp, and it got us to Pennsylvania. So I grew up with almost no other Japanese Americans around, whereas the people on the West Coast after the war went back to their communities along the West Coast. They had a whole set of different ways of looking at things and different problems than we did.
My dad’s younger brother was living in Iowa, so he was not incarcerated. In fact, he was a medical doctor, and he was in the U.S. Army. But the rest of us along the West Coast were put into these camps, and apparently, that uncle’s children were told, “Don’t even think you’re Japanese,” because of the war. They didn’t want to be identified as Japanese, so they didn’t even think they were Japanese.
My cousin who did the Nakashima documentary, John-Terry Nakashima, said he never even knew what sushi was until he was 40-something, poor man. [Laughs]
SB: What a loss. [Laughter]
MN: But it was interesting because he was trying to discover his Japanese roots when he was creating the documentary on my father, and we did go back to Japan. It was the first trip for him, and we interviewed a lot of Japanese people. He doesn’t speak a word of Japanese, so I did the interviewing and a rough translation for him.
But anyway, Dad did not reject his Japanese heritage the way most of the Japanese Americans did after the war. He embraced it and respected it, and that was why, I guess, he called himself a Japanese druid. And there’s a sensibility that the Japanese have—at least they used to have, I think it’s wearing thin now with industrialization—but they have a very strong respect for nature and the forms of nature. And I didn’t realize how the spaces here and the architecture here—and the landscape architecture, too—has a Japanese sensibility even though it’s not in Japan, but I didn’t realize that until I came back from Japan the first time.
The first time I went to Japan I thought, “Oh, this is the first time in my life that there are other people the same size and same hair color as me,” and I was happy to be there. Nobody understood me, I mean, I couldn’t understand Japanese, and they couldn’t understand English, so that was a problem. But I felt that this is where I came from, this is where part of me should be. But I didn’t realize how the Japanese aesthetic had been transplanted to Pennsylvania until I came back from Japan.
SB: Yeah, and I would say some of that is the Zen aesthetic, which certainly comes to life, to use one example, in the Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto. It’s maybe not a direct link, but you can certainly see some links between that place and this place.
MN: That was one of my father’s favorite buildings, which is why there are some links. [Laughter] When he was in the Raymond office, his best friend was Junzō Yoshimura, and he took him to places like the Katsura Detached Palace [a.k.a. Katsura Imperial Villa] because he wanted him to see the finest examples of Japanese architecture. And it wasn’t what other people defined, necessarily, as the finest examples of Japanese architecture, but it was for Junzō. And that really made a very, very strong impression on my father.
SB: Your father also was really proud of his samurai ethic and ancestry. Your great-grandfather Katsuyoshi Nakashima was the son of the last samurai in the family. Could you share a bit about this samurai legacy and how samurai thinking fits its way into your dad’s life and the life here?
MN: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s funny that he created a foundation for peace [laughter] coming from a warrior background. But temperamentally, he was very much a warrior. You didn’t fool with that, and my mother, [Marion Sumire Okajima], was the same way. My mother was also from a samurai family, which is why they decided they had a whole lot in common.
They were both born and brought up in the Seattle area and educated there. But they had met in Tokyo just by chance. Mom was coming back from Australia, Dad was coming back from India just before the war, and they happened to meet each other in Tokyo. But they had that samurai bond.
They were tough. No nonsense with them, no fooling around, no cheating. They didn’t necessarily fight, although they did fight. But they were very, very strong. When Dad was alive, in the shop, the fellas in the shop were afraid of him. They didn’t dare trespass anything he said or fool around in the shop because you never knew when he was going to show up and reprimand you for something or other. He was very strict.
SB: Yeah, there was a rigor.
MN: Oh yeah, and a discipline and a frugality. My grandparents, as well, were very frugal. They didn’t spend money. Mother complained because dad never spent money on vacations. When he had a job somewhere in the world like Mexico or Japan, my mother and brother would tag along and that was their vacation. They were very frugal, and that’s part of being a samurai also: You don’t spend money on frivolous things.
SB: And you mentioned Sri Aurobindo earlier.
SB: I wanted to bring him back into the conversation. Could you share a bit about who he was, how your father met him, and the long-term impact he had on your father and, in a roundabout way, on Nakashima woodworkers today?
MN: Yeah, it’s not really a roundabout way. My father…. He bought the steamship ticket around the world and was bumming around the world, and ended up in Tokyo and then his father told him to get a job. He got a job with Antonin Raymond, and one of Raymond’s major projects was this building, a disciple’s dormitory in South India, which was called Golconde, and he needed an architect on site to supervise it because nobody had done reinforced concrete there before.
He sent my dad, or my dad volunteered, and he was there. And it was a tough job. I mean, they had to import every single thing and they had to teach people how to do concrete because it had never been done before. The specs were all drawn up in Japan, and they didn’t have a lot of the brass fittings, the hinges and doorknobs, and things that were specified on the drawings from Japan weren’t available in India.
They had to set up a foundry, and the mother of the ashram collected brass plates and vessels and had them melted down and made into brass fittings for this building. Anyway, it was quite an adventure, and Dad became a disciple of Sri Aurobindo during the process. He was so taken with the peace and the atmosphere of the ashram that he became a member of the ashram in 1938 and he thought he was going to stay there for the rest of his life.
And he himself had undergone a fair amount of—I guess you’d call it psychic trauma while he was there. It was a very powerful learning experience for him because he was educated in the West, and architects are notoriously known for being egotistic. And he ran into conflicts with some of the other architects on the job.
But in the end, he learned and respected the teaching of Sri Aurobindo, which was basically knowing the way to peace is through knowing how to control your ego and not let it get in your way. And also knowing that beauty is defined as something from the divine, that it’s not something created by human beings. Human beings are just the conduit for beauty to emerge in the world. That’s basically called “karma yoga.” He became a karma yogi back in the 1930s. He probably called himself the world’s first hippie back in the thirties.
SB: Yeah, we left the hippie part out earlier. [Laughter]
MN: That’s one of his, yes. [Laughter] Well, he was a man of many facets.
SB: Well, I love this Karma yoga idea, because I think most people assume you have to be in a yoga pose to do yoga. But really, this idea was almost craft as yoga. That creating beauty is a form of yoga, and that creativity can be this way of doing yoga.
MN: Exactly, yes. If you let it work through you. And that was the fundamental lesson that he learned while he was at the ashram. When my cousin John and I went to India to interview some of the disciples who had known my father in the year 2000, we went there and we luckily got an interview with Udar [Pinto], who was my father’s partner in building Golconde. He was at the engineer end of the architecture, and Dad was the design end of it, but they were really good friends.
And we got to interview Udar, but there was also a woman who was the head of the art house in Pondicherry in the ashram. I went to her just informally one day and we were just having a conversation and she said the most beautiful things about art and how it comes from the divine and goes through your hands and goes into what you’re making. And that is your Karma yoga. It was just so beautiful, I said, “Oh, Terry, we have to go back and record her.” And we went back and tried to record her, and it was just like putting a hot light on a frail little flower. She just folded up and didn’t say anything. [Laughter] It was so disappointing, because it was so beautiful what she said the first time.
SB: Since we’re talking about time on this podcast to a certain extent—it is the name of the podcast, Time Sensitive. [Laughs]
SB: I wanted to bring up time in relation to your primary medium here, wood, and also mention your dad’s book on the subject, The Soul of a Tree. How do you philosophically think about time from the perspective of trees, and also in the wood you choose and use to create the magical things you make here?
MN: Well, I used to feel badly when something died on the property. I mean, the trees are always dying in little bits or sometimes big bits. [Laughs] And now that I’m getting older, all my friends, or certainly my parents’ friends are dying and leaving this world. But it’s just part of life. I mean they’re born at a certain time in history, and they grow a certain way because of where they’re planted. And after a certain amount of period of time, they need to die.
And Dad said if he had to cut down a living tree, he wouldn’t have the heart to do it, but he said it’s like eating meat, somebody else does the killing. It’s okay, it’s gone anyway. But most of the wood we harvest has reached maturity and is on the way out already or has actually fallen over or is endangering somebody’s house or is in the way when they’re building a road. We are almost entirely, as far as I know, sustainably harvested. We have a logger who lives near here, and he was the assistant to my dad’s logger. He’s been on a lot of tree adventures during his lifetime, and it’s always comforting to know that he takes down the trees that nobody wants anymore or that are dying or dead anyway.
And Dad had this…. I haven’t read his book for a while, so I forget where that quote came from, but once a tree is down, if it just stays in the forest, it will eventually rot and provide soil for another generation of trees. But if we bring it in and harvest it and dry it and take care of it and eventually make it into something useful, we’re actually giving the trees a second life.
And it’s pretty amazing. You never know exactly what’s going to be inside of a tree until you put it on the mill and start slicing it and look inside, because every tree is a different…. It’s like human beings, everyone is different. Even though they’re all walnut trees, they’ve lived different lives in different places, and you can see.…
Dad said in his book…. No, in his video, I guess, he said that sometimes you can look into the grain of a tree and it’s speaking. It’s speaking torrents if you could only understand them. And some people understand that; some people don’t, but you can usually see the evidence of what a tree has gone through in a plank of wood. And you don’t really see that fully…. I mean, you see it, you get a good glimpse of it when it is first on the carriage at the sawmill, and you get a glimpse of what was inside this tree. And then you have to dry it for a number of years, and you forget what that looked like. Then it comes back into the shop, and you make it into something, and you see all this life that the tree went through. Then you sand it down and send it into the finishing room, and the finishing room—when they apply the coats of oil—is when you actually get to see deeper and deeper into the life of that tree.
I don’t know, to me it’s…. Finishing itself is probably a pretty boring occupation because you just put oil on and wipe it off all day long, but just seeing the wood come to life, it’s like a miracle.
SB: You spent twenty years working with your father, who produced, by my count, ninety-six designs in his lifetime, plus nine more that you’ve revived. And you have seventeen of your own designs. Maybe some of these numbers are a little off—I tried to count as best as I could. [Laughs] And since his death in 1990, you’ve now spent thirty-three years running and shepherding George Nakashima Woodworkers forward.
Could you speak to the before and after? In hindsight, how do you think about this time? Those two decades with your father, but then now the three-plus decades since.
MN: Mm. Well, when I came back in 1990—1970, sorry, I think it was a pretty good bribe. Dad had bought some property across the road, and he was building a house, and he said he wanted me to come home and live in that house. He said I could work for him part-time if I wanted to. And so, I tried to work part-time for him, but I was definitely the understudy for twenty years.
In the beginning, I was Mother’s gofer. I was the filing assistant, and back when I first started, we had manual typewriters. We did not have computers. Every order that came through had to be written up by hand in an order book, and then it was transferred to three-by-five cards that were done in duplicate. Not only did you have to cut carbon paper in the right size for three-by-five-inch cards, but you had to put them in the manual typewriter and type them. And every time an order changed you had to redo it all over again.
I went to architectural school, I graduated with a master’s in architecture from Waseda University, and of course, I had kids in the meantime; I couldn’t really work full-time. But I thought, “My goodness, why did I get an architectural degree if this is my job?”
But in my spare time, I was allowed to work in the workshop, so I got to make small things and tables, and I think I probably even helped a little bit with the chairs and learned how to shave spindles and things like that. Then, as time went on, Dad got older and needed more and more help, so I got to do more and more of the drawings, and then I would trail around after him.
And he insisted that I go with him to the sawmill and watch the milling process because that was, to him, it’s like Michelangelo. You have to start with the right material and get the right stuff and cut the wood at the right thickness for certain different uses. And you have to know which way the grain is going to be the most beautiful and turn the log to capture the best part of the log before you mill it.
That was really good training and I enjoyed that. And then as time went on, Dad got a stroke. He had a pretty severe stroke toward the end of his life, but he didn’t quite understand what it meant. I remember he used to go around the shop every day and supervise what was going on and tell the people what to do and what not to do, and which wood to use and all that stuff.
He went around after he had his stroke and one of our workmen had a round burl. Not very often do we have burls that have free edges all the way around, and Dad had taken his chalk like he usually does, and he’d marked to cut off all of those free edges all the way around the table. And the workman came to me, and he says, “George marked this this way, do you really want me to cut off all the free edges?” And I said, [whispers] “Please don’t, thank you.”
Some of the drawings he would do, it was interesting. He had a left brain stroke I guess, or was it a right? Anyway, the left-hand part of his drawing would be almost perfect, and the right-hand part of his drawing would be completely out of scale and unintelligible because of the hemisphere of his brain, which was affected by the stroke. One day I was redrawing his drawing, and he says, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I needed to fix it, because they can’t use it this way.” And it was sad that he realized he was limited now, and he couldn’t do everything. But he went around supervising the shop in his own way until the end of his life. He just lived in the shop, and he loved the shop, and he loved what was going on.
But little by little, he would tell me more about why he did what he was doing and how he did what he was doing, so that was a good thing. Somehow the stroke also loosened his tongue. He didn’t talk much when I was growing up. He got mad sometimes. He fired me about five times [laughter], but he didn’t talk much. And then after he had a stroke, he began to be more verbal and he would tell me why he did things the way he did, which was a blessing.
SB: And what about this thirty years post? I know most immediately following your father’s death, the shop made his coffin out of walnut.
MN: We did, yes.
SB: Could you talk about that moment and experience? I imagine doing that must have been so cathartic in some way, and also, as you wrote in Nature Form & Spirit, his loss created this immense vacuum. In the face of this vacuum, you’re kind of doing one or two final projects for him in a way.
MN: Yeah. I guess we decided that we didn’t like those commercial coffins, and Dad wouldn’t either, so we should make him one. So I designed one, and then everybody in the shop pitched in to make it. And it was kind of a beautiful thing. It was like a dance. Normally only one person will work on one project at a time, but everybody in the shop cooperated and worked on one part of the coffin. They danced around each other in the machine room and made this nice coffin for my father.
SB: You made a memorial to him a couple of years later, in 1993, the Nakashima Reading Room.
MN: Oh, yes. Well, that was commissioned by the Michener [Art] Museum, and they said they had been wanting to commemorate my father somehow, and they didn’t know… Of course, they didn’t get around to it during his lifetime, but they decided they wanted something. And they were building a new wing. Are you familiar with the Michener Museum?
MN: It was built on the site of the old jail in Doylestown, [Pennsylvania], and they decided they needed to expand their exhibition area. They were building a new wing and there was this one area that they decided would be the Nakashima Memorial Room, and it was sort of set off from the rest of the museum. So I went over to look at it and did a design and decided on some materials, and decided to put shoji screens against their steel mullion windows, and some benches made of elm that had come from an old tree in Yardley. Then I chose the color of the walls, which were Kaiu Kabe, the same kind of walls that we have here, which are a natural funny green color. And we started putting that together, and then the designers were putting together the color scheme for the rest of the museum, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, this isn’t going to fit at all.”
But it eventually worked. The problem we had is that because the shoji screens are such good insulators, it was a very cold year and there was ice that was forming in the shoji tracks because the windows were sweating because of the humidity control in the museum. And the shoji screens created this insulator, so the water dripped down from the windows into the shoji tracks and then it froze. So we had to modify the windows. We put some strip heaters on the window mullions; now it’s fine.
SB: I found it interesting to learn that George’s last project was your first: Rebuilding this collection of furniture that your father’s friends had lost in a fire. There’s such a profound transference in that, that this project he had begun at the end of his life you are beginning in your new post-George life. I was wondering what it was like to work on that, and that it was replacing furniture that had been lost in a fire seems so prophetic.
MN: Yes. We were very close to the Krosnicks. They had ordered furniture, I think, initially in the 1950s, and they lost their entire collection, I think it was just before my father’s last show opened in New York, in 1989. And they came and they were just devastated. These were wealthy people who had not only lots of Nakashima furniture, but this beautiful house in Princeton, and artwork.
They had a Ben Shahn collection and I think a musical instrument collection, and the missus had lots of jewelry and beautiful clothes and all that stuff. It’s all gone, and they were just devastated. I think they didn’t have anything but the clothes on their back because they had to escape the fire. They came over and Dad said to them, “Oh, we’ll rebuild it for you, Evelyn,” and that was a comfort for them.
They had to live in a hotel for three years, but they rebuilt the house, and that was an adventure. That was an adventure for me because my mother had all these little things. The orders were recorded on three-by-five cards and there were little notations to see the sketch. And she threw out all the sketches because they didn’t fit in her file.
Luckily, The New York Times had planned to publish an article on their house about the same time my father’s show opened, so they had done a complete photo record of the entire house. Even though they didn’t publish it, they allowed us access to those photographs that we could use for reference.
The stuff that said “See sketch something or other” was in this place in this room, and “Oh, it must have been such and such,” and “It must have been about yea long.” Anyway, they had to rebuild the whole house, and we had to rebuild all of the furniture. Some of it was a lot different than the original furniture. Of course, she wanted it bigger and better than the other ones because she was getting money from the insurance company to pay for it. They’re both gone now, so I can say this. [Laughter]
But it was a difficult job.
MN: My daughter, Maria [Suzu Amagasu], my oldest—well, she’s my only daughter, and the only one who’s an architect—was working with me at the time. She had wanted to work with my father, but he was gone. She condescended to work with me, but she helped retrieve the files and try to put them in order and try to help me organize this order, which went on for three years.
It was our main source of income after my father died, and it was…. Evelyn Krosnick—Arthur not so much—but mostly Evelyn was my trainer. I mean she was so demanding, and I think it was partly because she didn’t like living in the hotel where she had to live because her house was gone. She’d come over here and she’d spend all day looking for the right kind of wood to use in her house. We saw a lot of her during those three years, and there was a lot of backing-and-forthing about which piece of wood would be best and which corner it would fit in and how long it had to be.
But thank goodness my daughter helped me through that, and Evelyn helped me through that, too. I mean, she was a really good trainer. I had no idea how Dad had to work with clients and develop designs and find wood for the projects until he was gone and I had to do it. [Laughs]
SB: You’re rebuilding someone else’s house, but you were also, in a way, rebuilding this place in the aftermath of his loss. And it’s incredible to think about, looking at these past thirty-three years because twenty-five years ago, in 1998, you debuted a line of furniture: Keisho, the Japanese word for continuity. Could you talk a little bit about that collection, but also this idea of continuity, how to keep alive what your dad had passed on to you?
MN: Right. Yeah, that’s been an interesting project. [Laughter] When my dad first died, we had a three-and-a-half-year backlog of orders, but because the press had built up our business as being a one-man show, the one man was gone, and he would not be able to sign his pieces as an artist would. So I think at least fifty percent of our orders [were] canceled. That was a bummer.
The head man in the shop—and most of the men in the shop—stuck around for a while. But the head man in the shop, Jerry Everett, and I looked at each other after Dad died, and I said, “Jerry, what are we going to do?” He said, “Well, I guess we just keep on going.”
And we looked at the pile of wood and decided, yeah, we better keep using that pile of wood. [Laughs] There’s an incentive there to use that pile of wood, and the wood pile was so big that…. I think Dad thought that he was going to run out of walnut trees or something. He had this huge stack of wood that was stored in Philadelphia, and the company where it was stored was very, very kind. They had met my father in the forties and were puzzled how he could afford to buy East India Marol and walnut. And they gave him some veneer logs that weren’t good enough for veneer, but he was very happy. He used them for tabletops and other things.
They put up with our wood pile until the day he died, and then they said, “This stuff is taking up way too much room and Nakashima’s gone now. Please get this out of here.”
SB: So you built the Pole Barn.
MN: That’s when we built the Pole Barn, yeah. I looked for somewhere to store it, I couldn’t find any place that was suitable, so I told the zoning people that it was a temporary structure, and we would not need it once we used up the lumber in there. It’s going to take longer than they thought it was going to take, I think. [Laughter]
It’s not only an inspiration to go out there and look at the woodpile and imagine what those trees wanted to be, but it’s our legacy. And Dad, he specified how he wanted that wood cut, and he had an idea of what he wanted it to be. We’re very happy that we have this treasure trove of wood to work from and be inspired by.
SB: Yeah. You’ve written of his lifelong love of trees, and this “long lonely battle against materialism and sensationalism,” which seems more relevant than ever in our world of screens and the overwhelm that comes with how we’re infiltrated with information and even just how the world is built these days.
I wanted to ask how you view this legacy now that you’ve been bringing it forward for so long. I’ve always found it so impressive how you’ve both been able to follow in your father’s footsteps, but also step outside of his shadow.
MN: Well, in the beginning when my father first died, she was insistent that George was still running the business, and that—
SB: Your mother?
MN: Yes, and she wanted me to sign “George Nakashima” on the bottom of all the furniture that came out after he was gone. And I said, “Well, my name isn’t George….”
MN: “And George isn’t here anymore, but….” I think I just signed everything “Nakashima” for a while, because I couldn’t figure out what to do.
And then after a while, I think Bob Aibel helped a lot with his sponsoring shows at his gallery. There was one that came out shortly after my father died, and then there was [one show on] that Keisho [collection], and then there was a [show on the] Shoki [collection], and I think there are three or four shows that he did for us.
One thing that my father did not teach me, and I didn’t realize was really important, was how to get publicity, how to create publicity. These people would come and interview him and take pictures of him, and I thought, “Well, Dad just likes his ego stroked.” [Laughter] “I don’t know what these people are doing here.” But that’s what kept him going.
The problem with that is that everybody had this image that he was making everything with his own two hands, and then—
SB: A myth almost.
MN: Yes! It was a myth, and nobody knew I was there. I’d been there for twenty years, but none of the rest of us were ever included in any of the articles. It was just my father. Occasionally my mother. My mother was complaining too that when he got his award at the National Arts Club that nobody recognized what she did, which was important.
She was the bookkeeper, and he probably wouldn’t have been successful if she didn’t keep the books. She made sure that he collected money for his furniture instead of giving it away. And she was very organized and very disciplined. I think Dad married her for that reason. He knew that she would keep him in line, which she did. [Laughs]
SB: Could you talk a bit about stepping out of the shadow, which I know was probably a long, slow process? But in a way, I would say you’re very much known as the person who’s brought this [company] forward now because of the amount of time. I mean, sixty years since your family came to this property.
MN: I think it’s almost seventy, isn’t it?
SB: Almost seventy.
SB: And you’ve been working here for fifty-three years.
MN: That’s true. I don’t know, Dad did instill in me the value of not letting your ego get in the way. He used to talk to his clients too, and I’d be listening in. We used to have open hours on Saturday afternoon, and that would be the time when people would come and order furniture.
He would give almost… Maybe not everybody, but oftentimes he would give people this lecture on how you shouldn’t let your ego get in the way. I heard that lecture so many times I think it sank in. In the beginning, my mother said, “George is still running the show.” And so, I thought, “Okay, but there’s a lot of work that George left behind, I think we need to finish it. There are people who are waiting for their furniture, they have—”
No, actually, they didn’t, that was the problem. When Dad passed away, my mother in the very beginning, she used to collect deposits when people would place an order. Then she got tired of keeping deposits because there were so many orders into the future. And so, she did not have deposits on any of that furniture that was on order when Dad passed away. Fifty percent of those orders did cancel, and there was no penalty for that because there was no money down. After a while, we started asking for deposits. Actually, it was three and a half years before we finished the Krosnick project, so I didn’t have to worry about that for three and a half years. They paid their bills.
But in the beginning, I wasn’t allowed to think that I had anything to do with creating this furniture—that it was still George that was doing it, and then Bob Aibel said, “Well, you have to make some designs that are your own, and then the design world will accept you.” Otherwise, people accused me of making just reproductions, [and that] therefore they should be cheaper.
And I said, “Well, it takes us the same amount of time to make them now as it did before, and we gotta pay our bills.” I think I did take the prices down a little bit, but not that much. [Laughs] Thanks to Bob and his publicity—I mean, he knew how to run publicity and publicists and so forth—I did get a few articles.
SB: And then 2003 you published that book, [Nature Form & Spirit].
MN: Yeah. Well, that was a long time…. That was a lot of work. A part of that was because my cousin John-Terry had started doing research for a documentary film [about my dad]. He showed me all these papers and stuff that were hiding in drawers and closets and suitcases. And he said, “Oh, this is really interesting stuff,” and started getting it organized.
I read them too and I got inspired and decided, well, maybe I could write a book about this; this is really interesting stuff. He started the research and the digging into the past and trying to figure out why George did what he did and created his film, and I did the same thing.
Also, because I was trying to justify what I was doing! I didn’t know why I was here, what I was doing, why I was doing it. It was just a job when I first came, in 1970, but now it had to be something else, and I had to figure out why Dad did what he did and what made him tick, and what was behind what he did. And I don’t know if I figured it out or not, but I explored that in that book in 2003.
SB: And I would say explored it since, and I think one of the beautiful things about being here in this place, and that I feel is so special sitting here with you is that it is this profoundly simple and beautiful setting full of simple and beautiful things that have amassed over time in New Hope.
It’s not lost on me that George believed there was this truth to be found in between simplicity and beauty. And against odds, he really proved that, I think, over time. I was wondering, how do you think about the enduring power of this place, these creations— the beautiful pieces that have been created over more than half a century?
MN: Well, we hope that the buildings and the contents of the buildings will be preserved for as long as they can for people to see and enjoy and be inspired by. There’s a lot of Knock-off-ashimas being made nowadays.
SB: Knock-off-ashimas. [Laughs]
MN: Yeah, that was my brother’s term. [Laughter] But in the beginning, when Dad started out, I think it was partly economic and necessity. He couldn’t afford to buy the good wood, so he bought the cutoffs from the lumber industry—the castoffs from the lumber industry. And then as time went on, he got the castoffs from the veneer industry.
I think he may have been one of the first people to mill logs through and through because he wanted to cut starting at the end of a lot all the way through, so that you got the natural edges of the tree on both sides of the plank that came off. And I don’t know if anyone was actually doing that before Dad did that, in the forties.
And that was thanks to the Thompsons [from Thompson Mahogany], who gave him these logs that they didn’t want, but they allowed him to mill them the way he wanted them milled. He oversaw the milling until the very end of his life. I remember he bought some bubinga logs that this lumber broker had brought in from Africa, and they were huge. They were five, six feet in diameter, and eleven feet long.
And he said, “Well, this knife-maker had ordered them, and they wanted to cut them up in little bitty one-by-one-inch pieces,” and Dad thought that was a shame. He bought one or two of those bubinga logs, and it was so expensive he sold half to his associates in Japan. That was one of the first millings that I had to do solo—because he’d had a stroke and he couldn’t go to the sawmill anymore—and that was an adventure. But I’d seen it done over and over again. I figured, well, keep going with this. [Laughs]
SB: What do you hope is the legacy of this place and of, really, I think, your work? What you’ve built here over the past few decades.
MN: Well, what I’ve done I don’t feel is my work particularly; it’s just building on what Dad left behind. He left behind a huge pile of wood. He left behind a group of really well-trained craftsmen, and John Lutz came in as our…. Although after my mother passed, in 2004, I was just overwhelmed with work. I couldn’t do it all.
And so, our accountant at the time said, “Well, you need a manager, and you need an assistant designer.” I guess about seventeen years ago I got a manager and an assistant designer, and it’s been much better ever since—especially the manager part. He’s really good at multitasking, and there are lots of things that need to be done.
Oh, that’s some of our dear walnuts falling on the roof. ’Tis the season.
But he takes care of all the stuff that I don’t like to take care of, and I have assistant designers. Now I have two assistant designers—I’ve never had two before—and they’re both wonderful, wonderful men. One is older than the other, but they’re both strong and healthy and have good eyes, and good hands, and good personalities. They’re good at working with our clients. At one point I thought that it would be important for it to be a family business, but right now my grandson is the only one with us, and he has…. I would like him to have a little more background in architecture and design before he comes in. And I don’t know if he’s even interested in that. [Laughs]
My oldest son was really interested in running the business, but he went to business school. He also did a lot of woodworking when he was growing up. He studied woodworking when he was in high school and he set up his own shop, and he’s pretty good at woodworking. But his training in business school was, in a way, contrary to Nakashima and the way my parents set things up. He came in and he left several times. But while he was here, he would tell me, “Oh, your father and your mother did everything wrong and I’m going to fix this. And you don’t have this, and you don’t have that.”
Once you start focusing on the bottom line and productivity, you lose the quality, and you lose the craftsmanship and the camaraderie of craftsmanship, which is what makes us go. And the people that we have with us now are sensitive to that.
It’s interesting, there’s a crossover not only from the designer department to the craftsmen, but from the craftsmen to the designer department. And I think that that integration of craftsmanship and design is really important. We have this huge pile of wood, and there’s always more trees falling down that need harvesting, so I hope that it.…
I mean, I really feel that maintaining this kind of a business—working with natural materials, working in this kind of an environment, and at this pace—is really important as an antidote. And Dad built his business as an antidote to the modern world. He was so upset when we thought about getting computers in the office, and my mother was insulted. She says, “I am the computer. We don’t need another one—especially a mechanical one.” Dad didn’t like it.
But he was dictating his letters to a very talented woman who was good at taking shorthand. He would dictate his letters to her, and she’d take them down in shorthand. She typed them out on the manual typewriter. We got our first computer in, and she was able to type directly into the word processor, and he thought, “Oh, computers aren’t so bad after all.” [Laughs]
Now we can’t live without them, but it was a rough go there for a while. I mean, you have to adapt. Now we have how many computers in the office? We have three, four, seven computers in the office now, and I don’t know what we’d do without them, but hopefully, the handcraft part of it will continue as well.
SB: The spirit lives on.
MN: Let’s hope it lives on, and we’re so blessed with the people that we have on deck now. John Lutz has been very selective about the people we hire and set up a very definite training system for the woodworkers, which is a good thing, and people come in from different backgrounds.
Usually, people who come in with too much training are really hard to retrain. We had one woman who came in years ago and she said, “I don’t know why they do it this way. There’s an easier way, there’s a cheaper way, there’s a faster way to do this.” And Jerry, our head man, says, “Well, do it our way first, and then if you can think of a better way afterwards, you can do that. You can suggest that but do it our way first.” And she hasn’t complained since.
SB: The Nakashima way.
MN: Yeah. It’s not the most efficient. And the craftsmen have to have a certain amount of artistic ability, as well as woodworking skills. And the designer people have to have a certain amount of woodworking skills to understand what we’re doing.
And Dad set it up as an integrated process. We always lived right where we worked. There was no separation, and I think that was what he picked up also from his experience at the ashram: that you don’t want to divide yourself into pieces. You want to integrate your life and your work.
That’s what he tried to do, and I don’t know if that will continue, because nobody actually lives on campus here anymore. But let’s hope that there will be an integrated furniture-making process anyway. And that the campus will be preserved somehow or other into the future, because people seem to enjoy it.
But it takes a lot of work. I mean everything is getting older. Everything is falling apart one way or another, and needs to be fixed. That’s why our foundation has taken on the responsibility of upkeeping the buildings and maintaining the insurance and upkeep on furniture and so forth.
SB: Mira, thank you so much for your time. It was really special to sit down with you today.
MN: Oh, thank you for yours. [Laughs] It’s a lovely day to have a conversation.
This interview was recorded at the George Nakashima Woodworkers compound in New Hope, Pennsylvania, on October 11, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Ramon Broza, Emily Jiang, Hazen Mayo, Emma Leigh Macdonald, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Martien Mulder.