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Mira Nakashima

New Hope, Pennsylvania

INTERVIEW: Leigh Patterson

PHOTOS BY: Colin Leaman

This season we were so honored to capture our Fall/Winter collection at the Nakashima Foundation in New Hope, PA at the studio of renowned woodworker George Nakashima. The Foundation is today led by Nakashima’s daughter Mira, an architect and designer in her own right. Mira’s work has long been in dialogue with her surroundings and the design tradition she is part of, sharply transmitting the sensitivity of her natural surroundings into the furniture she designs and direction she leads the Foundation.

Trained by her father, Mira attended Harvard and Waseda University’s immersive atelier program, imbuing her process in pillars of collaboration, craft, and imaginative solutions. An astute observer of what it means to both preserve legacy and reframe it for the future, we spoke with her about finding home as both a place and an idea; listening to the natural world; and the treasured objects that both ground and inspire her.

Q. Cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston said, "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." What year do you find yourself in?

Every day, every hour, has questions, and most of my days are spent trying to find answers to those questions. Sometimes the questions go on for years with no clear answer.

Q. There is this parallel between distilling an essence of each individual piece of wood and the woodworker – that an entirely unique disposition, sensibility, and attention lives through both. I'm curious how one develops one's individual voice as a craftsperson, while also upholding the particularities of the Nakashima tradition?

It is interesting how different craftspeople and designers interpret the Nakashima tradition. In the design department, we carefully research past works and consult with the older woodworkers before creating a new drawing, but each designer has a different eye which is manifested in the drawing, and each craftsman has their own particular way of interpreting those drawings. Each piece, then, is not only unique because each plank of each tree is different, but because each designer’s and craftsman’s ways of seeing and doing allow their interpretation to speak as their tools, hands and eyes work the wood.

Mira wears the Varese Cardigan in Ash.

Q. What has been your idiosyncratic path to woodworking? Do you feel you would have developed a different relationship with design were it not for your upbringing?

I basically grew up in the shop, but developed a love of music and languages in High School. My father insisted that I major in “Architectural Sciences” (no longer offered at Harvard), sent me on a Zen Buddhist tour of Japan with Alan Watts after graduation, and arranged for me to attend Waseda University in Tokyo under the watchful eye of one of his friends from the Raymond Office. Waseda’s Master Program was based on the Atelier system, where we worked with a practicing architect on real projects, as well as with student teams on international competitions. It was a crash course not only in the Japanese language, but in drafting, engineering, and building itself.

I married the most handsome and best draftsman in my class, started a family, and moved to Pittsburgh for three years before returning. My father had purchased some land and built a house, which my ex-husband couldn’t resist, and I started at the bottom, working in the shop when I had finished the office work, and then helped with shop drawings until my father’s stroke in 1989, when I had to take over all phases of sales, drawing and overseeing work in the shop. I still rely heavily on the woodworkers themselves to figure out the finer details of joinery and support systems. My experience “growing up” in the shop has certainly formed my way of looking at design. I make sure that my design assistants have had experience making things out of wood; one of them actually left the design department to work in the woodshop because she loves it so much!

Q. Do you have any rituals or practices for bringing new pieces into your home? Is there a tacit consideration for how they will complement or live among what already exists?

My house is full of pieces Dad made for me which I love, so we rarely bring anything new into our home, unless we run out of space to store our ever-growing collection of books; we have put to use the old poplar bookcase from my father’s original workshop and several generic bookcases for that job. One of my children requested his childhood desk for his young son to use during the COVID shut-down, so we “borrowed” a small desk from the Studio to use in its stead. We sometimes borrow or exchange furniture from the Studio; as we needed 3 designer desks and had no room for the bed which was there, we exchanged the Studio bed for a desk my two older sons used to use. Like my parents, sometimes I inherit “rejects” or cast-offs from the shop that were made the wrong size or were no longer necessary. As my mother-in-law passed away this year, we inherited her Nakashima pieces and have incorporated them into our downstairs rooms. Even though the woods and time of production are different, they are all finished with a natural oil finish and live together quite nicely.

Q. In an interview with the New York Times, you're referenced as saying that your father "...felt his work was a form of integral yoga: How you work and live is all connected." I'm curious about the way that you understand this parallel in your own life.

My father based his life’s work on The Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo; there were only a few steps between his shop and his home, the wood-pile and the office; his friends were his clients and his clients often became friends. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be sucked into this way of life, but after moving into my house across the road, that life slowly became mine too. My children grew up and went their separate ways, so the people in the shop became not only my best friends, but almost like family (Jon, my husband, still works in the shop). We now have three members of the Nakashima clan working with us, and there is a precious sense of belonging which our visitors and clients sense and treasure. My brother Kevin who passed away last year would always regale visitors with his own version of family history, which amused, fascinated, and endeared him. One disadvantage is that it is always so close it is hard to “leave work” behind and shut the door...but it has also opened doors to meeting new people and seeing new places where our furniture has found a home.

Q. Is home a place? How has your sense of home changed over time?

Our home was much more chaotic when my children were young, a place of incessant food preparation, laundry, running out to pick up and deliver children to music and karate lessons, baseball and soccer games, Boy Scout meetings, and the like, but it was always the gravitational center of our lives. Since Jon has come into my life and the children have all left home, it is a place of quiet refuge, meditation in front of the Butsudan, consecrated after my father’s death in 1990, a place to read, write and study, to play, and listen to music. We thankfully have access to the buildings across the road, swim regularly in the pool there during the summer months, but are also grateful to have our own quiet place to retreat to and recharge.

Q. You live on the acreage where you grew up. What has your experience been like maintaining such consistent ties to this land?

The place I grew up is where I work, and I appreciate daily what a beautiful site it is and often notice things that need to be taken care of on the property as I travel between buildings. I especially love working at my desk in the Studio after everyone has gone home, watching the sun set behind the trees.

Q. What are some of your most treasured pieces of furniture, if not simply objects that you are currently enjoying being in conversation with?

My most treasured piece of furniture is the music stand my father gave us as a wedding present in 1985. Not only is it a beautiful piece of Maple Burl, but it holds my music so nicely that it takes flute or guitar playing to another dimension. Another piece is our Persian Walnut coffee table with a large hole which sits in front of our fireplace. My youngest son used to sit inside the large hole and pretend to drive it on an imaginary journey, and when his own son came to visit, he did exactly the same thing! Our dining table has a smaller hole at one end which that same son used to drop his unwanted food through, and the family dog would sit happily at his feet to receive the offerings.


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