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.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So is every table different?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes, it completely depends on the piece of wood.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: This is the first table made on the east coast (1930’s)
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: How unusual were these designs at the time?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: At the time, the term “freeform” really just meant something made by the human hand, not the freeform “shape” that we think it to be now. Shippers used to look at the tables and say that they were cracked and emphasized that it wasn’t their fault! We told them they were like that on purpose, which seemed crazy to them. We were buying up scrap that others didn’t want — imperfect pieces thrilled my father, and obviously, these became his signature look.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I understand that he designed hundreds of pieces for this home. It was a huge commission for him.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes, it was. It opened in 1975 and the Ambassador of Japan came to the opening. It was a big deal.
Q:I’m curious about the design process for new pieces — do you look to your dad or to yourself during this process?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: My dad died in 1990, and at that time we had a huge supply of wood. We also had a lot of great folks who trained with my dad who stuck around, which was lucky because we also had a huge backlog at that time. One of our client’s houses burned down as well, so we really had a lot of work to focus on. First, we built a barn to house all the wood (the one you saw in the slides). Then, we focused on filling all of the current orders. We were really afraid that the secondary market would dry up at this time — many people thought that everything should be discounted because everything from then on was a “reproduction” of my father’s designs. I don’t think people realized the team we had in place for so many years under him was fully trained firsthand in his designs. We do create variations of dad’s designs, because in reality, every piece is different because every piece of wood is different. Things made by hand are each different by nature, and we see a need for that now more than ever. In NYC for example, nature is not as prominent in your everyday life, and we feel that is a very important element.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So your pieces are based on your dad’s designs, but you also create Mira designs, correct? Although regardless, it sounds like you always look to him for techniques.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Exactly. In fact we have a large redwood roof that just came to us that I’m very excited about. We stood it on end to fit in the barn.
Q:What is your process in selecting wood?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Sometimes we ask people what space the item will go in, but more often these days we are asked about cost first and we work backwards from there. In fact, we have a table in-house now that is for the President of South Korea, and he’s quibbling with us about the price!
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: I’m sure that in the selection of wood people like to be very involved.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: Yes, they like to pick their own wood and be very involved. Some even pick their wood by the internet, which is very difficult for me to understand.
Q:How large a part does biomimicry play in the design process? In terms of how it’s evaluated and how it’s shaped, etc?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: We usually buy logs whole. We look at them overall, and also oversee the milling process. You really need to imagine what you are going to be using it for in the end to understand how it’s going to be milled. It takes 5-6 years to dry, so this is a very forward-thinking process. We go by dimensions, size, and thickness as we think about how it’s going to be used. And when you look at a milled plank and see its natural contours, it starts to become clear how we want to work with it. Modification is very much dependent on each individual piece.
Q:First, I want to thank you for being here. I’m just in awe of you and your work! Could you tell us a bit about where you get your logs and how much they cost?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: The walnut and cherry logs come from Pennsylvania, although we do have some from New York and California. Up until now, there was a big building boom in Pennsylvania so the trees had to be moved, which gave us a lot of inventory. Black walnut trees drop nuts that no one likes so those are removed. The cost is about $4 / rough board, but a lot of work is done to it after that, of course.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: The trees in the slides look very large.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: English Walnut roots don’t grow in California so they actually take them down and graph them onto other trees to grow. They can grow up to 5’ across.
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: So before we close I want to ask about working with your dad. I know that you started working with him in 1970, and you told me that he wasn’t that easy to work with.
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: He wasn’t. I don’t think he ever trusted me and my work. You have to understand that he was a total perfectionist, so to trust anyone with his wood, even family, was difficult. Also, he was non-verbal. He expected you to just figure things out. We live across from the shop, and when I first started working with him my kids would see me walking home at the end of the day and would say, “oh, did you get fired again today, mom?”
MAXWELL GILLINGHAM-RYAN: Your brother never worked for him, right?
MIRA NAKASHIMA-YARNALL: That’s right! He didn’t want to be fired every day. Visit nakashimawoodworker.com for more information on Nakashima, his products and his legacy. The property is open for tours on Saturday afternoon and is a mere two hours from New York City. Come visit!
Thank you Mira Nakashima-Yarnall!
Congratulations to the evening’s winner of Mira’s Beautiful book, Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima.
• Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!
• Special thanks to our volunteers Georgie Hambright, and Kayne O’Rourke!