Profiles: Mira Nakashima

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This article is from Issue 84 of Woodcraft Magazine.

The next-generation studio furniture maker

Mira Nakashima is a mother, wife, architect, furniture maker, author, and daughter of renowned woodworker and author George Nakashima. She’s also a longtime friend and woodworking compatriot, thanks to my having worked in her dad’s finishing shop many years ago. When George died, Mira took over the business—knowing full well how challenging it would be to walk in the footsteps of her famous father. Remarkably, Mira has the same passion and reverence for wood—and fine woodworking—as her dad. I caught up with Mira recently to talk about family, wood, woodworking, and what the business has been like since her father’s passing almost 30 years ago.

—Andy Rae

WM: Nakashima Woodworkers had a strong familial—and even stronger patriarchal—influence during your father’s time. With your mom and dad gone, what’s the current family dynamic?

MN: I left home in ‘63 to pursue an advanced degree in architecture, but then came back in 1970, and have been here ever since. Family businesses are not easy places to work, and I was fired many times for questioning authority. The only one working with us now is my daughter-in-law, Soomi. My daughter Maria, the only architect of the next generation, lives and works in Winnipeg, Canada.

WM: What was it like growing up—and later, working for—a famous woodworker?

MN: I never thought Dad was different from anyone else, except for the fact that he always worked right near the home, and I never paid much attention to what he was actually doing until I came back from my architectural schooling. I liked working in the shop much more than the office, and I didn’t mind being his design assistant. It was excellent training in developing humility.

WM: The workplace was very disciplined during my time. Has it changed?

MN: The workshops are still fairly regimented. We’ve developed a more rigid structure of procedures, roles, and responsibilities, with some collaborative checks and balances, to take the place of my parents’ somewhat arbitrary strictness.

WM: Your father made furniture he had designed, but he also relied on a small number of skilled artisans. What employee has been with you the longest? How many years?

MN: Gerald Everett in the cabinet shop definitely takes the honor of being the longest-employed woodworker at a record 48 years. And he’s still going strong. It was only a few years ago that he finally felt he had created a cabinet with perfect dovetails!

WM: I once asked Sam Maloof if someone copying his signature rocker bothered him. “Not at all,” he replied. “It’s flattering. But please don’t call it a Maloof rocker. I didn’t build it.” What’s your philosophy on imitation?

MN: Ben Franklin once said that “imitation is the highest form of flattery” but I think it indicates a lack of imagination.

WM: A lot of handwork goes into a piece of Nakashima furniture. What’s your favorite woodworking hand tool, and why?

MN: My favorite tool is what we call the “bendy stick,” a pliable, wooden stick that I use to mark full-size curves on tabletops.

WM: I remember your dad autographing some of his pieces with ink and brush, while a hush fell over the room. Do you sign your work?

MN: I sign my name and date on every piece that goes through the shop. But I only sign “Nakashima” on something like the Conoid Chair, which has been in production since my father’s time. It’s still our best-selling piece of furniture. 

WM: You obviously have a strong spiritual connection, similar to your father’s. How does this translate into your furniture?

MN: My father’s greatest spiritual training was in the Ashram of Sri Aurobindo in India, where he spent more than three years. He later became a Roman Catholic. My upbringing was entirely in the Catholic Church until I went to Japan for the first time, travelling with writer and philosopher Alan Watts. That’s when the connection between Zen art and philosophy became clear. My husband Jon and I still go “on retreat” to a Benedictine Monastery at least once a year, and until recently have also studied Tibetan Buddhism. I am not sure how all this translates into furniture. Perhaps it reinforces the possibility of divine inspiration and keeps one’s ego under control, allowing the wood to speak for itself. 

Visit our website and click on onlineEXTRAS for a full transcript of the interview with Mira Nakashima.


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