Before her father George passed away in 1990, Mira Nakashima, “only 74,” spent 20 years as his apprentice at their family’s Nakashima woodworking studios in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The training was of the Stotan variety: Her father spoke little to her, expected her to learn by doing, demanded long hours, and was more apt to point out her mistakes than to offer praise. The idea of reaching perfection was borderline mythical, a bull’s-eye that one aimed at but could never quite hit. Now Mira says that, after 47 years, including the last 26 as the Nakashima studio master, she’s finally beginning to hit her stride.
She works six days a week, sometimes seven, a fatigue-inducing standard driven into her by George, who worked almost every day of his career until he had a stroke and eventually died at age 85. Observing Mira’s dedication can make one wonder: What is truly required to master one’s craft? And, bracingly, is it worth the trouble?
While George’s teaching style might be seen as dangerously tough, the approach allowed him to become one of America’s master furniture craftsmen, despite some serious hardships. A graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he lived in Seattle with his wife, Marion, and Mira until 1942, when they were forced to move to an internment camp in the Idaho desert. “In camp, he and a Japanese carpenter were given the job of trying to make our living quarters more livable, and they had to use whatever materials were lying around: leftover construction lumber, packing boxes, crates,” says Mira, a newborn at the time.
After the family left the camp in 1943, they made their way to New Hope, where the architect Antonin Raymond — who sponsored the family to get them out of the camp — owned some land. “Dad was not allowed to do architecture with Mr. Raymond, but he was employed as a chicken farmer and was allowed to make furniture in the milk house,” says Mira. “He didn’t have money, so he went to the lumberyard and scrounged for leftovers.” Using discarded pieces as his canvas, George began to celebrate the imperfections found in wood, like the cracks and knotholes. Rather than smooth them out, he left the imperfections in, and that became his signature style in his tables, chairs, and other pieces of furniture.
George Nakashima at his workshop.
When George found a three-acre property nearby, he negotiated a work-for-land deal with the owner. “We lived in a tent while Dad built our home,” says Mira. Today Mira works on the same wooded acreage, which consists of 14 buildings, from that first home George built to the design and construction studios. Ever since her father passed away, Mira has managed the entire woodworking operation, overseeing the handful of craftsmen and ushering in the next chapters of her family’s business.
Here, Mira opens up about what it was like to learn the craft from her father, the importance of toiling away for years without feeling the need to be applauded for your output, and why she hasn’t handed the family business over to her children.
What is more important for an artist to do, respect the tradition before them or develop their own style? Why?
Keeping in mind that art is not a product of the ego but a result of being open to divine inspiration, one usually builds on what one has learned in the past that works well and resonates from within. In Western culture, following a tradition is not a respected path, but in most Eastern traditions it is the only way to go. I remember a conversation I had with a Japanese colleague after my father died and I wasn’t sure what to do next, and he told me that in Japan, there are three ways of carrying on a tradition: One, the path of the tea ceremony, in which one spends years trying to learn what the master knows, following exactly what he does until it becomes second nature and you are also ready to teach the tradition. Two, the path of the kabuki actor, in which the inheritor of a name may not necessarily be a family member, but has similar talents, and may assume a role completely different from that of his predecessor. Three, the path of ikebana (flower arrangement), in which one is expected to learn everything from the master but is also expected to create some “branch” of the tradition based on the original “trunk” before he/she is also recognized as a master. My friend thought that the third path was probably the one I should follow.
How have you created your own style in the shadow of your father’s tradition and legacy?
It is perhaps odd, but I feel that my father is still here guiding and inspiring those of us who work here, and whenever there are questions, we stop and ask ourselves, What would George do? Respecting and incorporating the previously tried-and-true methods, designs, proportions, materials and techniques gives us the confidence to stretch a bit beyond the realm of what was previously done, without violating it.
Japanese-style home designed by George Nakashima located in Pocantico Hills, New York. Image courtesy of Nakashima Foundation for Peace
What piqued your initial interest in woodworking?
I didn’t decide I would make woodworking a career — it was decided for me. When I was in high school, one of my English teachers had us write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I liked music and languages, but my mother said, “You want to be an interior designer,” and she practically wrote my essay for me. It was the only “A” I ever got in English. Then when I got to Harvard I had to decide on a major, and I thought I would go into linguistics. But my dad said, “No, you’re going into architecture.” And I thought, Okay, I guess I can do that. I went into architectural science, which really wasn’t a hard course at Harvard.
What led you to Tokyo afterwards to study for a master’s degree at Waseda University?
My dad had two friends who were teaching architecture in Japan, and he decided that I should study with one of them. I chose Waseda University because it would let me write my exam papers in English. And the school would give me a real degree, where the national university would only take me on as a special student, because I couldn’t read or write in Japanese. I could hardly understand the lectures at Waseda, and I was really glad that my friends helped me translate everything after class.
Was it expected that you would return home and work for the family business after college?
Well, at the beginning, Dad kind of lured me home, because he said he bought this property near his studio and he was going to build me a house. I wasn’t sure I wanted to come home; I liked being by myself and doing what I wanted to do. But he also offered me a part-time job working for the company, which drove my mother crazy, because my parents were very strict about work times. You were supposed to punch in at 7:30 a.m., leave for an hour at lunchtime and then come back and work until 4:30 p.m. My hours were all over the place, since I had three little kids, eventually four. Mostly, I was Mother’s helper at the beginning.
My job description was doing anything that no one else would do. Dad let me work in the shop on the small pieces, which was fun. I learned what to do by doing it and getting corrected.
What should someone taking an apprenticeship look to get from it?
If you are a creative person, I think there needs to be a certain amount of discipline and rote learning. In Europe and the far East, there is the master and apprentice system, where the apprentice just does what he is told. And he is fired if he doesn’t do that. You need to learn the structure of your craft from your master, and that takes a long time, and a lot of patience.
How did all of the firing make for conversation at the family table?
My mother was pretty conscientious about where she sat us. And, as soon as dinner was over she’d start cleaning the dishes and it was time to leave. There wasn’t much conversation. Dad was a Zen master. You learned by doing and not by talking. This comes from the Japanese heritage, whether I want to admit it or not. When I was in Japan, I got extreme exposure to how the loyalty system works, how the work ethic works, and how the common goal is much more important than the personal goal.
Despite your father being a man of few words, did he have any kind of mannerism that he used to tell you when he was proud of what you had designed?
When when I was very little he would boast about me to other people and it was almost embarrassing. He’d tell them I could speak five languages, when I could say “good night” in five languages. He would boast about me until I disobeyed him, then I was in the doghouse for quite a while. When I got older he didn’t brag about me at all. I don’t ever remember being praised for being successful while I was working for him. It wasn’t something I desired. One thing that he always talked about, sometimes to me, but often to the men in the shop, is that the trouble with the Western world is that it’s based on the ego, and you have to get rid of the ego. The ego is too big. Get over it. That was my lesson.
One of 14 buildings on the Nakashima property, the Concoid Studio was built in a three-dimensional fashion with a square base and an arch rising over the top.
Once your father died, customers quickly canceled orders because they didn’t think there was anyone at Nakashima designing pieces, like you had been doing for 20 years. How did you market yourself to let them know that you, and a dozen other people working there, could adeptly produce what they wanted?
I didn’t have a clue what marketing was when Dad passed. But the Michener Art Museum decided they wanted to do a memorial on my dad and they had this reading room in this new museum they were building and the director decided that it would be nice to create a little Nakashima memorial room. He asked me to design it and furnish it. During this process, I commiserated with the museum PR person that I didn’t know if our company would be able to keep going, and she said she would do something about it. She got me so much publicity about that little room, which was embarrassing, because a whole new museum was being built. Gradually, we started to come back to life.
Did you ever consider shutting the business? Why or why not?
When Dad died I didn’t know if the business would be able to continue or if I wanted to continue it, But I looked at the woodpile that my dad had accumulated over the years, and I realized I couldn't stop. I had to do something with that pile of wood. It was sitting there asking to be made into something.
How have you approached your children getting in the family business?
I do have four children and seven grandchildren. When my children were growing up, I didn’t want to push them one way or another. Two of them went into medicine and they’re doing extremely well. They have started their families and have moved to the West Coast, and I certainly don’t want them to give up their careers to run a furniture business. My daughter did study architecture, the only one of my children who studied architecture, so she is qualified, but she married one of her classmates at McGill University [in Montreal], and decided she wanted to live in Canada for the rest of her life. She is not coming home anytime soon.
I have one son who is in the area and desperately does want to work here, but he just does not have the background or sensibility of knowing what it is we do and respecting the traditions from the past and having an eye and capability for design — he never studied design or architecture. He never even studied art. He did go to business school, so that is where his perspective is. In my mind, if you think about the money first rather than the art first, the art will fall on its face. We have parted ways for the time being. It is a big disappointment. I was hoping he would be able to catch on and learn, though I haven’t totally given up hope.
You display the Japanese work ethic of focusing on mastering a single task over a period of years, while living in an American culture that prizes efficiency. To what degree do you feel tension between the two cultures?
That tension was felt most acutely when my son was working for us. He wanted to do everything faster and more, and we’re not set up to do it that way. That isn’t how we have gotten where we’ve gotten. Each piece of wood is different from the next one — sometimes it takes an hour to shave a piece, sometimes it takes 15 minutes. Dad always said there was one perfect piece of wood for every purpose, and we do our best to find that one piece of wood.
Is retirement a consideration?
Yeah, I’ve thought about it, but it never happens. A few years ago I thought I would retire slowly. I would cut down my six-day week to a five-day week, and then the next year I could cut down to four days, then eventually I would be able to retire.
You work six days a week?
I try not to, but sometimes it is seven days a week.
Why put in so many hours?
There are all kinds of things that still need to get done.
Matt McCue is the former editor of 99U. He lives in New York City, but he is willing to travel long distances for a good meal. Find him on Twitter at @mattmccuewriter.