2018-05-24 / Around Town

Designer Renders Antiques of the Future

By Loren King


Mira Nakashima custom furniture blends Western and Eastern cultures She will discuss her work at the Newport Art Museum's annual meeting on May 30. Mira Nakashima custom furniture blends Western and Eastern cultures She will discuss her work at the Newport Art Museum's annual meeting on May 30. In an age when virtually everything is disposable and little is made to last, Mira Nakashima holds a tradition in her hands.

Mira, 76, is the daughter of internationally renowned furniture designer George Nakashima, recognized as one of America's most innovative craftsmen. Mira Nakashima learned the art of furniture making at her father’s side for more than 20 years in his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

After George died in 1990, Mira, who earned degrees in architecture from both Harvard and Waseda University in Tokyo, took over his company. She has continued his artistic legacy as a master craftsperson in wood, producing custom-designed, hand-crafted furniture that blends Western and Eastern aesthetics.

Like her father's, her designs showcase the natural form and character of the wood, leaving imperfections like cracks and knotholes that existed in the tree.

Newporters will have the rare opportunity to meet Mira and view her selected pieces in the Nakashima tradition when Jessica Hagen Fine Art + Design gallery hosts an opening reception with the artist on May 31 from 5-7:30 p.m. The exhibit, “Nakashima: Continuing the Tradition” will be on view until June 17.

Nakashima will also be the guest speaker at the Newport Art Museum’s annual meeting on May 30 at 6 p.m.

She rarely does gallery shows, so her appearance is a coup for the Hagen gallery.

“It was serendipitous,” Nakashima said in a phone interview from the New Hope studios where, like her father, she works six to seven days a week, including giving tours of the three-acre, 14-building site that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.


Nakashima’s Wohl table. Nakashima’s Wohl table. She said her recent visit to the Rhode Island School of Design allowed her to make connections that led to the upcoming Newport visit. She’s bringing several tables and chairs to the exhibit from her Keisho collection that will be for sale.

Nakashima says it was shortly after her father died, as she prepared her first show of her own designs for the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, that a friend suggested she needed a name for the work “that’s uniquely yours, to establish yourself as a designer,” she said. “I’d been doing new designs but had never put them together in a collection.”

She decided to call the collection “Keisho,” because the word translates from Japanese as “continuation” or “succession.”

Her father’s legacy was one of hardship and survival. Born in Spokane, Washington, he graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and settled with his wife, Marion, in Seattle. In 1942, with their newborn daughter, Mira, the Nakashimas were forced into an internment camp in the Idaho desert.

“Making things with his hands was a good form of therapy,” Mira was a good form of therapy,” Mira said. “There was a lumber mill nearby that would send scraps of wood to the camp.”

Her father used it to make their quarters more livable, she said, but more important, “It was a way of maintaining [his] sanity.”

Woodworking grew into a spiritual and practical philosophy that George Nakashima practiced all his life. “The wood works on you rather than you working on the wood,” Mira says.

By 1943, the family settled in New Hope, where George built their home and gradually added various design and construction studios on the property.

While many Japanese-American victims of the U.S. government’s interment policy during World War II chose to reject their Japanese heritage, George Nakashima embraced the influence of Eastern art on his woodworking, Mira said.

When Mira took over Nakashima studios, she had a barn built on the property for her father’s stockpile of lumber, which was mostly walnut. “We’re still working with that,” she says. “It’s dad’s legacy [that] we’re using up.”

The custom designs are created by a group of veteran woodworkers. Dining and coffee tables make up most of the orders. “We don’t do as many chairs, because it’s a lot of work and it’s hard to keep the cost down,” she says. “The arm chairs are [George’s] design and we’re still making those.”

In 2003, she designed the Concordia chairs that will be on display at the Hagen gallery. They were created for a group of musicians in New Hope who needed to be able to move in their seats without restriction, in order to play their instruments.

The sleek Nakashima designs may earn praise as a marriage of art and craft, but the labor-intensive process of hand-making furniture meant to last forever in a culture that prefers instant gratification may be unsustainable.

“Everything is so cheaply made nowadays; it’s hard to educate people to differentiate between mass-produced and custom design,” she said. “I’m hoping to continue for a while, but none of my children want to go into the business.”

Nakashima studios repairs and restores all its pieces, past and present, so they endure “instead of ending up in the garbage pail,” Mira says.

Preservation may be unfashionable today, but she is consoled by her father’s words: “We are making the antiques of the future,” he once said.

TO GO

WHAT: Open reception and exhibit "Nakashima: Continuing the Tradition"

WHERE: Jessica Hagen Fine Art + Design gallery

WHEN: May 31 from 5 -7:30 p.m.

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