Cultured Magazine

Fall 2013

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NAKASHIMA 2.0 Mira Nakashima emerges from her father's studio with a new collection of custom furniture. BY JULIE BAUMGARDNER PORTRAIT BY ED CUNICELLI Growing up with a famous father is a dubious prophecy. Mira Nakashima wasn't so much in the shadow of her iconic designer dad, George, but rather the light was never even shown on her. "I was the understudy and the gopher," relays Nakashima, who now runs the legendary studio. "That was the problem when dad died: nobody knew that I was here." Forget pity: in turn, the 72-year-old craftswoman has pushed George Nakashima Woodworker, based in New Hope, Pennsylvania, to new depth. "In the beginning, it was just a question of following in dad's footsteps as best I could," Nakashima explains. "But as time went on and clients requested different things, I came up with different solutions than had not been done before." This new direction was unveiled this fall as a custom line—25 sleek and seamless pieces of solid wood—exhibited by Philadelphia's Moderne Gallery, which has long represented Nakashima. Whether influenced by her father's now-almost-famous dismissal of her pursuit, or simply because some people just are that talented, Nakashima currently steers the studio as a democratic collaborative. With 10 craftspeople, many of whom have been dedicated to the Nakashimas since George was at the fore, the company churns out the type of furniture oft-associated with the American Studio Craft movement—a point Nakashima is quick to dismiss as a misnomer. "We're very much a late development of the Mingei movement," she contends. "Studio Craft is outside our realm." Nakashima explains how the overlooked schism of the movement often frustrated her father: "What bothered dad about the craft aesthetic was that furniture has to be useful to our lives. People assume because they used their hands to make an object, that it was the equivalent of art. But because it wasn't useful, it wasn't craft either." The strong commitment to functionality—and the dismissal of frivolity—came to define whatever stylistic label envelopes the designs of Nakashima, both in their current form and those divined by her father. The Nakashima studio still eschews decoration in favor of the trees' own texture—an approach adopted by the elder woodworker. George was fervent about his respect of the natural form, his manifesto, "The Soul of a Tree," is perhaps his most famous writing ever and it contains mantras on the quality and philosophy of wood that recall the teachings of Japanese thinkers. "I guess my Japanese heritage comes out in the aesthetic," Nakashima suggests. "[Japanese potter] Shōji 60 CULTURED Hamada always said, 'there is a variety in sameness,' and its relationship to tea and Zen is probably very much at the heart of our work." While the Nakashimas descend from Japan, they are in fact fundamentally American. Both George, his wife Marion, Mira and her brother Kevin were all born in this country. The story goes like this: George, a native of Seattle, studied as an architect but his disapproval of the prevailing style at the time, in the 1940s, led him to design. "Dad always said modern art is on the wrong track because it's a cultivation of the ego," recounts Nakashima. But then World War II broke out and the family was sent to Idaho to the internment camps. "My dad said, 'There were wounds but they healed over and left no scars,'" she recalls. The Czech architect and friend of her father, Antonin Raymond, sponsored them to be extricated from Minidoka camps (oft-cited as the most arduous of the U.S. jingoist experiment) whereby they landed in Pennsylvania to fulfill their newly designated duties as carpenters. From there, George continued to develop his craft and ultimately devised one of the most defining—and revolutionary—aesthetic movements in the United States. And Mira was alongside the entire time, even as a child. "Everyone assumes my brother should be a woodworker because he's George's son," laments Nakashima. "When dad was alive, I was his assistant designer but I didn't dare ask questions…and the sensei always had the last word—if he didn't like what you did, you started all over." Even now, Nakashima admits that she is caught between asserting her own vision and proliferating the "Nakashima look," which, if hard-pressed to define, she would characterize as free and honest. "Dad often accused me of being wishy-washy, and I thought, 'My gosh! You trained me to be that way,'" she remembers, but then says, "You have to have a certain amount of ego to be creative, but it's ego in the good sense." And it's part of Nakashima's own fate that she has gained the confidence to continue the legacy of her father, while inspiring a new incarnation, as the latest collection suggests, in addition to the inclusive approach she's adopted to manage her studio. While her collaborative spirit is a welcomed departure around the woodshop, there's little doubt that Nakashima has ascended to sensei status, even if she does things rather differently than her father. But make no mistake, "Dad was my nurturing parent," Nakashima insists. As encapsulated by her most resonant maxim, "Ichi-go ich-e," each moment in one's life is different than the next.

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