A Place at the Table
Mira Nakashima inherited her father George's shop and set to work continuing his artistic legacy.
Voice of George Nakashima: I feel that there's a spirit in trees that's very deep. I find the spirit just bouncing up and down in the vein of a tree.
John Yarnall: George, he really wanted to be a tree in motion. If you think a tree just grows, well... look what it has to deal with. It's just sitting there getting pummeled by air, wind, and drought. It's just tough. It has to be disciplined to survive. This is the human condition, too.
George Nakashima's route to becoming a legendary 20th-century fine art furniture maker was a circuitous one. The Washington state native graduated with a master's degree in architecture from MIT, just as the Great Depression hit.
So he headed off around the world. Along the way, he spent time in France, India, and Japan. On his return to the U.S., he set up a workshop in Seattle and was just settling down with his wife and infant daughter, Mira, when his life was upended.
Mira Nakashima: I have a toy box that my dad made for me. And I believe I had that in the camp.
In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Government began rounding up all U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry and incarcerating them.
Mira Nakashima: We were all sent to camps on the Idaho desert. It was a very difficult movement. I was six weeks old. In the camps, the buildings themselves were not ready so when we got there, a lot of the incarcerees were actually the ones building the buildings. And Dad was teamed up with this Japanese carpenter named Kentaro Hikogawa and they were given the task of trying to make our barracks more liveable. The materials were what they could find on the properties. Nowadays, it's trendy to use found materials in your art but that's all we had, was found materials back then. And so, I think that was the beginning of Dad's capability of using found materials.
Post-internment, the family located to New Hope, Pennsylvania. There, they began to rebuild their lives. And while many Japanese felt it wiser to willfully disavow their heritage, not so for George Nakashima.
Mira Nakashima: There is a social norm in Japanese culture. It's called gaman. And you just sort of put up with whatever is given you, no matter what. And there's also an attitude called shikata ga nai—which you can't do anything about it anyway so let it go. He said there were wounds, but they healed over and left no scars. Now, I think that's a cop-out. But my father did kind of overcome it, and his way of overcoming it was through his work. If you work with your hands, and are able to create something beautiful with your heart, it eases the pain. It transforms the pain.
Little by little, what started out as a single workshop grew into a sprawling artistic refuge, each building designed and built by George himself.
Jerry Everett: A lot of the buildings were experimental, and my understanding is a lot of the people told him that they wouldn't work. That you can't do that. And he insisted they would and proved it. I worked with George for a little over 20 years. I was 17 when I first started. By that time, he wasn't the legend he's built up to now, but you could kind of see it coming.
John Yarnall: The pieces themselves, the way George conceived them, they're obviously very substantial and very much at rest, but there's a certain dynamism that is in the tree and in the design where they seem like they're almost caught in motion. And that, too, is a little confounding because you think it's just a table, but it looks like it's alive.
Among George Nakashima's revolutionary designs, the Conoid chair which, like many of his buildings, seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Mira Nakashima: When it came out in the 1960s, there were people who said, “Well, you gotta take that off the market. It's dangerous! Everybody will sit on it and break it, and you'll be sued up and down. What do you think you're doing? You're making a two-legged wooden chair.” And Dad knew his structural engineering.
But it wasn't just about good engineering for George Nakashima.
John Yarnall: Most woodworkers would consider wood just a dead material to do their will, whatever their ego decided. Whereas George, he was standing back and letting the wood come forth with its story.
Kevin Nakashima: Each piece of wood has a purpose, and whether it finds it or not is up to us.
Jerry Everett: George was 65 when I started. Everybody in the shop had—more than a feeling—it was more of a certainty that, when George passed away, we were done. I remember standing at the edge of George's grave. I was standing next to Mira, and she took me by the hand and said, “Can we do this?” And I said, “Yes we can.” And she went ahead and she did it.
George Nakashima's legacy continues in a handful of dedicated craftsmen who continue to make furniture in his workshop—most especially in his daughter, Mira.
Mira Nakashima: Dad always said the wood has a story to tell. When I'm drawing a piece of wood, I like to go and stand in front of the piece of wood itself because it speaks to me. It's almost like a meditation on that board, which guides the pencil and the design itself.
Jerry Everett: Everything on the property has George's fingerprints all over it.
Mira Nakashima: He's in the wood that he bought. He's in the buildings that he built. He's in the shop where he worked for so many years. Working in his studio, sometimes I feel like he's still there so I often feel like he's watching over my shoulder. I better do it right!