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Happy to Be Here: A Nakashima catalog comes to life

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It’s an enormous challenge to write about Mira Nakashima. Her own words tell a story so well that it’s difficult to say anything she hasn’t already said.

The best I can do is distill Mira’s words, as I describe her new book, “George Nakashima / Woodworker,” a tribute to her parents, George and Marion, and to her brother, Kevin, who have all been involved in the family business.

Mira dedicates the book to them and also, with thanks, to “the Unknown Craftsmen whose hands have brought our work into being,” and to her children and grandchildren “in the hopes that the work we have begun may continue.”

George Nakashima, an architect and leader in the American Crafts Movement, built his home and a complex of working buildings on 8.8 acres looking south across Solebury Township’s lush fields near the Delaware River. He started his furniture making business in Bucks County in the 1940s, after the family was released from Minidoka, a World War II camp in Idaho that housed Japanese Americans from the West Coast. The business grew as Nakashima’s work became known around the world.

Mira, trained as an architect like her father, heads the woodworking business today. She assembled the new book from a loose collection of many years’ notes and drawings. It catalogs George’s work and explains the processes the studio has developed to produce the unmistakable Nakashima style.

“Wood greets me each day in my home on the Nakashima property in New Hope, Pa.” Mira writes. “It comprises the structure of my house — the roof over my head, the floor beneath my feet — as well as the furniture I sit and sleep on, read on, study on, eat on and keep my belongings in, and even the guitar I play. Wood has been such an inherent part of my life for as long as I can remember that I once didn’t even think about it, nor realize that the environment my father built was based entirely on his love for trees.”

The book opens with a discussion about process — “The wood is our muse and our palette,” George said. “Its shapes and colors speak to those who listen to the ‘still, small voice within,’ sometimes quietly, sometimes revealing wild surprises or hidden secrets.”

George collected native hardwood trees as they reach maturity and were about to decay. He saw himself giving new life to a tree, often going to the sawmill to cut the trees himself or to oversee the milling of each log and — that personal care goes on today. The pole barn on the Nakashima complex houses hundreds of measured and labeled vertical planks, mostly cut through logs top to bottom with bark intact. Mira believes her father was a pioneer in leaving irregularities on the planks, thus enabling the incorporation of intricate natural forms in a finished piece of furniture.

“Our work captures the story of a tree that has become lumber, then furniture designed and crafted with respect, now living with someone who has become part of the story,” Mira writes.

Furniture sketches follow pages of photographs of family members, George at work, room arrangements and individual pieces — like the three legged Mira chair that was redesigned with four legs after a few encounters with young Kevin.

Midway through the 108-page book is an index that starts with a glossary of words that might not be familiar to the reader. Next come pages of furniture — beds and benches, chairs and chests, shelves and upholstery, all drawn and named.

The final pages are dedicated to wood options and selection. “Board selection is especially important when it comes to our signature tables, each of which is designed individually,” Mira writes. It’s not just tables but also chairs and bed headboards and cabinet doors that get special attention. That’s because in choosing the wood for a project, “the emotional attraction of a client to a particular set of boards is the deciding factor, sometimes resulting in new design challenges.”

Nakashima fans, for the first time, can look through the sketches, see the variety of designs, and get a handle on what they want — a Conoid Cushion Chair, for example, or an Asa-N-Ha table lamp.

Near the end of the book is a page titled “How to Place an Order.” Orders start with a phone call or email. You might have a space in mind, or a floor plan or a certain kind of wood, dark or light, chocolate brown or golden yellow. Talking with a designer determines a concept, and that, after much deliberation, leads to the choice of wood.

“Our design team will mature the concept through closer study and translate our findings into a proposal,” Mira writes.

Not until then does the crafting begin.

Before he died, George published “The Soul of a Tree,” and in 2003, Mira published “Nature, Form & Spirit: The Life and Legacy of George Nakashima.” Both are large and glossy hardcover books, but Mira’s new book is more of a handbook.

“The Nakashima Process Book” is a work of art in itself. The book is printed and handbound in Italy with an exposed spine that pays tribute to traditional craftsmanship. The removable cover unfolds to reveal a large-scale, two-sided poster of George Nakashima triumphantly holding one of his early masterpieces, the Grass-seated Chair, and original drawings from George Nakashima on the underside.

“The Nakashima Process Book” ($35) can be ordered online.


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