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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 3, 2000. All rights reserved.
The Woman Behind Nakashima: Mira Nakashima-Yarnall
In his book, "The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s
Reflections," George Nakashima described his daughter, Mira, as
"interested in carrying on his `mad’ project." Now, a decade
after his death, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall is "Nakashima"
— as furniture historians and buyers well know. In the last 10
years, Nakashima-Yarnall has taken over the New Hope-based business
known world-wide, continuing some traditions and starting new ones,
traveling widely, and in the process seeming to juggle all of it with
Reflecting on her life and myriad roles in advance of the Michener
Museum-sponsored tour of the Nakashima Studio that takes place
May 6, she touched on her relationship with her "dad," both
then and now. With a documentary video in the making and a book
in the offing, as well as occasional shows of Nakashima designs around
the world, her father is still very much alive through his work and
continuing fame. She talked too about her own education and
including her involvement with two cultures once very much at odds
— American and Japanese.
Nakashima-Yarnall, who says "Japan is the only place in the world
I feel tall," is, in fact, petite in stature — but not in
range. She is self-possessed, with a ready laugh, and she’s
candid about her family and the family business. With short,
hair and amber eyes (sometimes aided by reading glasses), she dresses
casually and speaks comfortably. We met in her little office off the
showroom and moved from there to the Conoid studio, sitting at what
once was her father’s table-desk (a "free-edge," or untrimmed,
Nakashima piece, of course), near both unfinished planks standing
upright and rich, finished furniture.
The Japanese word "keisho" means "continuation." It
also summarizes Nakashima-Yarnall’s job description since 1990,
at all suggesting its scope. As vice president of Nakashima Studio,
she is designer and shop supervisor; she oversees lumber purchases,
sawing, and selection; she designs, mounts, and coordinates shows;
she handles sales, marketing, publicity, customer relations,
appraisals, and authentication research. At times in her life, she
hardly expected this would be the case, and yet, in retrospect, it’s
clear that her upbringing and training prepared her for it.
One of the most surprising things about Nakashima-Yarnall is that
she spent her first year of life in an internment camp — or a
concentration camp, as her father called it. Now, almost six decades
later and far from that Idaho beginning, she is a long-time resident
of New Hope, Bucks County, where her family has lived, and Nakashima
furniture has been made, since 1943. Both she and her father were
born on the West Coast: he in Spokane, Washington, in 1905; she, 37
years later in Seattle.
Her father’s parents had immigrated to the U.S. around the turn of
the 19th century, and her mother, Marion — now 87 years old and
still keeping the company books — was born in this country and
teaching English in Tokyo when she first met George Nakashima in 1939.
They married in 1941, and shortly after Mira’s birth and the bombing
of Pearl Harbor, the family was forced to join numerous other
in involuntary "relocation" to an internment camp in Idaho.
(Mira’s brother, Kevin, is her junior by 13 years, and thus was born
into a very different era, she says.)
As part of a seven-year round the world trip in early adulthood,
Nakashima had spent about five years as an architect in Japan before
electing to move to Pondicherry, India, representing his firm in
and construction of the main building of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram,
a monastic community there. He became a disciple and was given the
name "Sundarananda," or "one who delights in beauty."
After about two years at the ashram, he decided to return to the
world" — then boiling toward World War II. He was later to
name his daughter "Mira," for the Mother of the ashram.
Nakashima, who grew up among tall trees, said that he chose
for his life’s work because he could coordinate every step, start
to finish. In the course of his travels, and even during the
period, he had met and learned from skilled woodworkers. He had
a furniture workshop in Seattle, and not long after his family moved
to the New Hope area, he began again to design and make furniture.
"Call me George and tell me what to do," was his winning
in the early days, Mira remembers. Mixing the best he knew of American
culture with the Japanese esthetic, Nakashima pere came to consider
himself a citizen of the world. As a child, though, his daughter
became aware that "when you’re growing up in two cultures, you’re
part of both, but really not accepted by either." In elementary
school, many of her classmates had fathers who were World War II
— with the Allies. She had grown more comfortable by high school,
when she found herself in two different, but more bearable,
groups: the smart kids, and the "day" students.
In college — she graduated from Harvard University
with a bachelor’s in architectural sciences — people wanted to
fix her up with nice Japanese guys. Only after that, when she first
visited Japan with her godmother on a Zen Buddhist tour with New Age
guru Alan Watts, did she come to realize that she wasn’t regarded
as Japanese. Nonetheless, she wanted to stay and study for her
degree in architecture, so between October, 1963 and the following
April, she studied the language and was accepted to Waseda University,
Tokyo. There, she could enroll as a "regular" student, do
papers in English, and earn a degree, which she did in 1966 despite
the first, frightening lecture she attended. She remembers
only a small portion of the language, but because her friends wanted
to learn English, they helped. Did she suddenly "get it" one
day? "No," she says matter-of-factly, "Japanese was always
Only once in her life was that not the case: A little later,
married and living in Japan with her first husband, she came home
from the public bath with exciting news: a nice Japanese lady had
washed her back for her. This, she was told, meant she was believed
to be Japanese! Finally, she thought, she had fooled them.
But on a day-to-day basis, the reality was that although she could
speak passable Japanese, she couldn’t read or write it very well.
"I was not as literate as I should have been to be real
she says now. Although she once intended to stay in Japan, "I
couldn’t make it economically, and I guess I knew deep down inside
I knew I could never be accepted."
Coming back to this country, she realized "it was all kind of
a charade" while she was in Japan. "I fooled them once in
the bath, but I really wasn’t Japanese," she says, "and that
became more and more evident in my relationship with my husband. Over
there, I guess because you’re speaking the language and you’re
in the culture, you accept the fact that women are treated the way
they’re treated. Then when I came back to this country, I realized
I really wasn’t a Japanese wife, and he expected me to retain the
Japanese wifeness, and I couldn’t do it."
Their four children, three sons and a daughter, were born between
1965 and 1972; only the first child was born in Japan, while the
arrived in Trenton, Pittsburgh, and Doylestown — close to wherever
the couple then lived. By now, Nakashima-Yarnall says she doesn’t
even think about the issue of two cultures. Her own international
travels and the quadruple citizenship of her two grandchildren have
blurred such superficial limitations. As yet, no member of the younger
generations has joined the family business.
That any family business lasts into its second generation is
That one so linked to the unique vision of one individual manages
to survive is doubly remarkable.
"We have managed to bypass the whole money system, having never
had a mortgage and practically nothing in the way of loans,"
Nakashima wrote. And, looking back, his daughter says, "Dad was
able to think that way because Mom was so careful with the money.
She made sure that he had more coming in than going out, so he didn’t
really worry about it. He liked to think he wasn’t involved with the
money part," she says, indulgently.
"I remember him saying, `land and wood are two of the things that
will have lasting value.’ He felt that if he invested in wood, that
was something that was very real, it wouldn’t deteriorate and would
always hold its value. Mom let him buy as much wood as he wanted,"
she remembers. "She does the same thing with me. Some things she
complains about — she won’t let me spend money on advertising,
because dad never did that. But she’ll let me spend as much as I want
on wood, and it’s a little dangerous because I keep running out of
space to put it."
Which leads to a discussion of wood from a Nakashima
perspective. Usually, it’s black walnut or cherry. But it could also
be rarer, costlier kinds, or even burls, like those she recently
at in England, knowing the oak burls her father bought decades ago
are nearly gone. Regardless of where it comes from, any wood that’s
purchased is cut here. "This is the key to what we do.
Unless that lumber is cut properly, out of the right kind of stock
on the right forms, it’s not going to be what it should be. It’s like
sculpture. You’ve got a big tree trunk there, waiting to be sawn.
You have to imagine what it’s going to look like when it’s sawn into
lumber, how thick you want those planks to be.
Between 1970, when her father built a house across the road for Mira
and her family — which she still lives in, surrounded by Nakashima
furniture — and his death 20 years later, Mira was involved in
most facets of the business. Although her dad always did most of the
preliminary work with clients, he had from the beginning trained her
to do the working drawings — larger in scale and much more
than design drawings, these are used for getting work into production.
Whenever he was in Japan setting up shows, she was in charge of the
business. Over many years, she had learned woodworking skills on the
job, as well as through her architecture studies.
The American Craft Museum’s 1989 Nakashima retrospective caused a
spike in demand, and prices rose too. Nakashima-Yarnall supposes that,
consciously or not, furniture pricing has reflected an effort to keep
the order flow within a workable volume. "We can’t make the shop
any bigger because you need to supervise every project very closely
as it goes through, or it doesn’t come out right."
"I did a study which gave us a better idea of how many man-hours
were spent for a piece of furniture. I found out that some pieces
he made out very well on because they didn’t take much time in the
shop. He may have spent a lot of money on the material itself, but
most of the value was on artistic content.
"On the other hand, pieces like chairs take many man-hours, a
lot of material, a lot of pre-production time, and we weren’t even
breaking even on the chairs. And the chair department couldn’t keep
up with the orders. So I raised the chair prices to be more in line
with the man-hours. In the beginning, it didn’t slow down the orders
at all — I was surprised. Finally, they slowed down a little bit,
so we could manage."
Even after settling near her parents, co-existing with her father
"wasn’t always easy," she recalls, but she understands that
her father drew from his Japanese ancestry an authoritarian, not to
say dictatorial, approach to others, starting with his own family.
"Everybody thought he was this peaceful, wonderful, jolly,
man, but he had a terrible temper" that he often took out on her.
At one point, she simply left for a year. But even then, the ties
were strong, and Nakashima pere suggested her and her then-husband
for a Rockefeller family design job. Of their sometimes-volcanic
she remembers that "the first time he really fired me was when
I went over to the community college for an assertiveness course.
In his book, if you’re a daughter, you’re not supposed to assert
Yet this was the same man who waxed practically poetic about trees,
simplicity, artistry, and non-material values — and no doubt meant
it all — in his book, "The Soul of a Tree." Of his
philosophizing — "A tree sits like an avatar, an embodiment
of the immutable, far beyond the pains of man" — Mira says
when she was growing up, she thought, "What the heck’s he talking
about,’ or agreed when others said, "He’s just doing that to sell
furniture." Today, immersed in both the creative and productive sides
of the business, she says she’s working into her father’s philosophy.
In 1985, she re-married. Jonathan Yarnall had long worked in the
chair department, where for years he had heard her father philosophize
on subjects ranging from wood to religion. Together, they have visited
the sites around the world that had figured in her father’s life.
When in 1989, at age 84, her father had a stroke, Mira had to take
over in the shop. This was shortly after a fire at the Princeton home
of Evelyn and Arthur Krosnick had destroyed their extensive Nakashima
collection — amassed over 30 years and reportedly the world’s
second largest — and her father had promised to replace their
lost pieces. Only a few were finished when he died and Mira took over
that responsibility too, working pieces into the production sequence
and finishing the job to the Krosnicks’ satisfaction.
As far as acceptance of her as the "new Nakashima," Mira says
workers in both the New Hope and Japanese shops had always treated
her as they treated her father, and that pattern simply continued.
Old clients were very supportive, she remembers, with many of them,
and their children, now repeat customers. It took some time for her
to finish back orders and become totally involved with the business
before she could start with her own Nakashima designs, which she says
include more curves than her father’s work. In fact, her eldest son
decided early on that her furniture looks more like spaceships than
his grandpa’s had. To name a collection of her own pieces, Mira came
up with the word, "Keisho," or "continuation" —
not a total break from the past.
Reflecting on the last decade, Mira considers that she has done three
things: revived older designs, such as the "long chair;" kept
the "classics," such as chair designs, in production; and
developed new designs — for example, a squarish burl table, a
conoid base variation, and a variation of her dad’s "Arlyn"
table for the Krosnicks, called "Arlyn II."
As if that weren’t enough, she has also continued with her father’s
Global Peace altar/table project, which she calls "a direct
of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram." Some time in the mid-’80s, George
Nakashima had surgery for the first time, and while still under
he had a vision of making a peace table, or altar, for every continent
in the world. Serendipidously, his chief lumberman had found a huge
walnut tree, some six feet across at the crotch. The (dreamed-of)
end justified the (costly) means: buying the log, then hiring a
sawyer to come east and saw it.
That was only the beginning. Funding for the mammoth undertaking came
from the Rockefeller family and countless small contributions, and
the roughly 10-foot-square table, probably the largest single object
he ever produced, and at about three-quarters of a ton in weight,
also the heaviest, was crafted in the Nakashima Studio. And then,
while traffic was stopped, it was transported across the George
Bridge. Since reaching the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New
York in 1986, the peace altar has been used for daily mass; a
flame glowing nearby. Next came a peace altar for Russia, which
Moscow’s Academy of Art only last fall (a dedication ceremony is yet
to come), after stays at St. John the Divine and the Hague. In 1996,
a third peace altar went to "The City of Peace," Auroville,
India — an offshoot of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.
Starting with logistics and then design of the altars,
has been directly involved with the three made so far. She also made
a peace table for the Columbia University chapel, and says, "There
was no question about it. They thought it was right."
Someone once described architecture as frozen music,
says, clearly liking that analogy. She is a long-time musician,
the classical flute and folk guitar for "spiritual exercising
and refreshment." She plays both instruments — "not at
the same time!" — with a Titusville group each week.
Her resume indicates that, on top of everything else, she serves as
tour guide and slide lecturer. So, led by Nakashima-Yarnall, the May
tour of the Nakashima Studio, a repeat of last fall’s popular
encompasses four buildings: the showroom; the conoid studio
CONE-oid, meaning a section of a cone, and alluding to this building’s
roof design — the word is also part of some design names); the
reception house (designed by George Nakashima as a "sanso,"
or mountain villa), and the Minguren Museum. This building was named
for a Japanese group he exhibited with, literally the "peoples’
tool association," a deliberate reference to crafts, not art,
work. It was designed as a tribute to artist Ben Shahn, Nakashima’s
close friend, and now houses Shahn works owned by the family and
And so, for Mira Nakashima-Yarnall, it’s "keisho," or
But it’s also much more.
— Pat Summers
Pine Street, Doylestown, 215-340-9800. Preregister. $27. Saturday,
May 6, 10 a.m.
Aquetong Road, New Hope, 215-862-2272. Saturdays, 1 to 4:30 p.m.
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