Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Mira Nakashima-Yarnall

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Mira Nakashima-Yarnall

Aaron Able
Apr 21, 2011

• What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
• April Guest: Mira Nakashima-Yarnall
• Apartment Therapy Design Evenings: Meetup
• Attendance: 150+

This month we were greeted to the meetup by Ken Pilot, Executive at ABC Carpet & Home. The new space for our Meetups has proved to be a wonderful location and we thank ABC for their generosity. It truly is an inspiring place to walk through before each meeting. As a reminder to all of those who attend (new members as well as current ones) the invites for our events are hosted by meetup.com. Just search for "Apartment Therapy" and you'll find us. If you haven't joined us yet, please do so — and if you have joined us in the past, please continue to join, learn about designers first hand from Maxwell's 1-on-1 interview with them, and mingle with your fellow attendees afterwards.


"the woodworker's responsibility is to the tree itself, which has been sacrificed to live again in the woodworker's hands…" ~ George Nakashima

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Mira Nakashima-Yarnall was born in Seattle, Washington in 1942, and grew up in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where her father, George Nakashima, built his home and studio in 1943. Mira received her Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Sciences at Harvard University in 1963, and then went on to complete a Master of Architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan in 1966. She returned to New Hope in 1970 to work with her father, and became Director of Nakashima Woodworkers when her dad passed away in 1990. Mira completed a book on her father's life in 2003 entitled, Nature, Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima, and she received the first Medal of Honor for Lifetime Achievement in Decorative Arts in 2008. In 1996, the first "Altar of Peace" was completed as part of the Foundation for Peace, the goal of which is to install an Altar on each continent. They are currently at work on the 4th Altar, to be installed at the Desmond Tutu Peace Center in Cape Town, South Africa.
The first time I spoke with Mira was for one and a half hours on the phone. What I learned is that her family's story is such an international one. I'd like to start out by asking you to share the story of how your grandfather found his wife.

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: My grandfather came to the states in the late 1800's. At the time, Japanese were not allowed to intermarry with Americans, so there was a "picture bride" system used, where the groom would see a series of pictures of potential brides. He arrived in Seattle and found her photo. On my grandmother's side, she had visited a fortune teller who told her that she would "marry a poor man from a far distance." They had four children, the oldest of which was my father, George (1905). My grandfather worked for both a trading company and a Japanese newspaper in the US.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Your father went to MIT for architecture, and when he graduated he sold his car to go travelling, correct?

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes. He graduated in 1930, and at the time, it was cheaper to buy a steamship ticket and travel the world than own a car (and of course, there wasn't a lot of work in the US at that time anyway). He had been in Paris in 1929 so he decided to go back there in his travels.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: His story is very much a depression-era tale. After Paris he went to Tokyo, where he had never been, and got a job with an architect. Architecture continued to be a lifelong passion from there, correct?

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes. In fact, he worked for Frank Lloyd Wright in Tokyo for a short while and didn't get along with him very well, so he went to work with another architect, Antonin Raymond, whom Wright had partnered with on the Imperial Hotel. He came back to the US in 1943 and rescued us from the (internment) camp we were at in Idaho.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: (Antonin) Raymond was very into concrete, and your dad actually did a project for him in India, correct? And then, after working in Japan and India, he returns to the US and decides not to pursue architecture anymore. Why was that?

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: He was about to get married, and he saw a Wright building in California and became discouraged about US architecture! The whole architectural world wasn't right, and it was a major hassle to build and get commissions. He decided to start a furniture company, as furniture was something he could completely control throughout the entire process. He could make it in his own shop, and work directly with the client. This is how he started his shop — and contrary to popular belief, he did originally start on his own.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So tell us how he got you and the family out of the camp.

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: We were interned in 1942, but luckily he was still friendly with Mr. Raymond, who had moved to New Hope at that time. In 1943 he contacted my dad and said he had some government contract work, which he could use as a reason to help get the family out of the camps.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: And when he got you all out, he decided he wanted to do something non-threatening (to stay under the radar) so he went to New Hope and became a chicken farmer, yet quickly got sick of it.

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: That's right. He started making furniture by hand, but he also got a contract to work with Knoll Studios. So he did mass-produce some items at the time with Knoll. Luckily, he retained the right to make similar products by hand in his own studio; it wasn't considered a conflict of interest.

MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: And I'm sure he enjoyed the control over that part of the process.

MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes. My dad was at an ashram in India in the 30's (one of his stops on his world travels) run by Sri Aurobindo. While in the ashram he was given the name "Sundarananda," which means "one who delights in beauty." My father believed that he was a conduit for something greater than himself, and he kept this belief throughout his life, and especially in his work.


New Hope, Pennsylvania Showroom - 1954
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: The studio is open for tours on Saturdays - do come visit!