Profiles: Mira Nakashima - Full Interview

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.


WM: What is your best-selling piece of furniture?


MN: The Conoid chair.


WM: Are you still using the same wipe-on varnish?


MN: Finishes have changed over the years and become more toxic and behave differently. We’re now using a polymerized tung oil varnish with basically the same procedures as always: Five or six coats wiped on and then wiped off for a penetrating, “in-the-wood” finish.


WM: What’s new at Nakashima Woodworkers?


MN: Our work has become much more of a collaborative process than it was under my father’s regime. Over the years I’ve had two design assistants. Miriam Carpenter was the first to organize and store many of our designs. My second and current assistant, Alexis Caldero, has proven a whiz at wood selection and drawing. We also have a manager, John Lutz, who handles work schedules as well as ongoing architectural repairs to our aging buildings. In 2014, our Minguren Museum was registered on the World Monument Watch List. Funding from this, in tandem with a Getty Grant, has allowed us to train two young men in the fine art of restoration architecture. These developments have increased our understanding and respect for George Nakashima the architect, as well as the furniture designer. Thanks to Alexis’ lead, we’ve been in the process of re-thinking and re-designing both our current catalog and website with new photography and copy to go along with new concepts. Hopefully, this effort will explain our quixotic process better.


WM: Do you share your father’s views on designing and building furniture?


MN: I trained under my father for 20 years, learning as much as possible from him and the woodworkers in the shop. We try to maintain a close connection to George not only through his woodpile but also through his work and the woodworking techniques we’ve passed down through the years. Client requests continually push us beyond the boundaries of what we’ve done before. For instance, several years ago the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia sponsored a Nakashima exhibit, and we based many of the designs on drawings George did in the 50s and early 60s for Widdicomb-Mueller, a former furniture company. Many of the designs were upholstered, so we had to experiment with and learn more about the upholstery process.


WM: Do you create new furniture designs yourself?


MN: I’ve created a few new designs out of necessity, sometimes in collaboration with my design assistants, sometimes in collaboration with the client, and always in cooperation with the wood and the woodworkers.


WM: Thanks to the efforts of you and your father, three Peace Altars—huge tables made from live-edged slabs—currently reside in three different countries, with plans for a total of seven for the seven continents. When can we expect a fourth Peace Altar, and where will it live?


MN: I wish I knew. We thought we had a site available at the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, which seemed like the perfect site, but as far as we know, there is still no building in which to house one.


WM: Do you have plans for authoring any more books?


MN: We are in the throes of creating a “process book” which will take the place of our current catalog, but it is very much a collaborative creation. I did meet with the editor-in-chief of Abrams, Eric Himmel, who published my last book (Nature Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima), and he encouraged me to either write an update or a whole new book if I had enough material. I would like to do more research on the architecture of George Nakashima.


WM: There’s been a rise in handwork over the last 10 years, and a general move towards fine furniture. Is there a future for good work?


MN: I certainly hope so!

Back to blog