A pair of Pennsylvania homes constructed by the Japanese-American furniture designer George Nakashima have become an enduring testament to midcentury folk craft.
By Michael Snyder Published March 16, 2020 Updated March 20, 2020
IN 1933, THE JAPANESE philosopher and art historian Soetsu Yanagi published an essay, “What Is Folk Craft?,” that would become a foundational text of the mingei (folk craft) movement that reshaped Japanese aesthetics in the mid-20th century. In his writing, Yanagi proposed a revindication of “a provincial industry” of handmade utilitarian objects that are “indispensable to the daily life of ordinary people, that are used in commonplace settings, that are produced in large numbers, and that are inexpensive.” He felt these folk crafts were fundamental to the restoration of beauty in a world drifting toward soulless mechanization. The people who made them, he wrote, “have entered the way of salvation through unconscious faith. It is a path open to all.” Craft, in Yanagi’s estimation, was not only an artistic movement but a moral one, nothing less than a way to save the world.
The year after Yanagi published his essay, a young Japanese-American architect named George Nakashima, born in 1905 in Spokane, Wash., arrived in his ancestral land. The child of first-generation immigrants, he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930 and soon after fled the professional wasteland of Depression-era America to study around the world. In Tokyo, he worked with the Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond on Frank Lloyd Wright’s annexes at the monumental Imperial Hotel. And from 1936 to 1939, Nakashima lived in southern India, where he oversaw construction on one of the first reinforced concrete buildings on the subcontinent, the Golconde Dormitory at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. While there, he became a devotee of the Hindu ascetic Sri Aurobindo, who gave him the Sanskrit name that would appear, 50 years later, on his wooden grave marker, which is now preserved at his family compound in New Hope, Pa. — Sundarananda, or “He Who Delights in Beauty.”
The name would prove prescient. Despite his professional training, Nakashima was later known not as an architect but as one of the foremost craftsmen in America: a steward of Yanagi’s handmade beauty in a country swiftly abandoning its craft traditions in favor of efficiency and disposability, which it called modernity. From 1946, when he founded his studio on a three-acre plot in New Hope, a historic artist’s colony halfway between New York City and Philadelphia, to his death in 1990 at the age of 85, Nakashima devoted his life to transforming slabs of walnut, cherry, burled maple and redwood into coffee tables shaped like pools of water, Shaker-style chairs with hand-whittled spindles and dining-room tables fashioned from slices of tree trunks, their cracks and seams bridged with joints like butterflies caught in amber. “He felt his work was a form of integral yoga: How you work and live is all connected,” his daughter, Mira, 78, told me on a damp, gray morning last fall while showing me around the grounds of the studio, which she has run since her father’s death. Organic, improvisational and individual, the tens of thousands of objects he made in the course of his lifetime were also functional, meant for daily use; they were, Mira says, “the antithesis of Modernism, a protest against mass production.”
Nakashima decided to abandon architecture in 1941, the year he married his wife, Marion Okajima, in Los Angeles, after a visit to an in-progress Frank Lloyd Wright house. The following year, the couple and their infant daughter were imprisoned at the Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho, three among some 117,000 people of Japanese descent detained between 1942 and 1945, at the height of the United States involvement in World War II. Released in 1943 with sponsorship from Raymond, who’d returned from Tokyo a few years prior, the family, still constrained by law from moving freely in their own country, moved east to New Hope, where they lived on the Raymond family farm, Nakashima’s first introduction to prosaic Shaker design. When the war ended, Nakashima decided to homestead nearby. “Staying here and building something was his way of living a noble life,” says Jonathan Yarnall, Mira’s husband, 73, a craftsman at the studio for over 45 years.
Yet Nakashima never gave up architecture entirely. In the years he spent developing his practice, he also built 19 buildings on what would become an 8.8-acre compound, including a modest 1,397-square-foot three-bedroom ranch home at the heart of the property that he created for his family in 1946 — where his 65-year-old son, Kevin, now lives — and another 2,550-square-foot four-bedroom house completed in 1970 for Mira, her then husband and their three children in a clearing across the road (they had a fourth child a few years after the building’s completion). Nakashima would go on to construct more ambitious, expressive structures on the land, buildings like the seemingly weightless concrete rainbow of the so-called Conoid Studio (1959), the Arts Building (1965-67), with its hyperbolic paraboloid roof that looks like a concrete tarp on wooden tent poles, and the museum-like Reception House (1975), which together form a wholly intact, monumental core for the studio’s campus. But the homes where Mira and Kevin live, patinated and imperfect and crowded with debris, more fully capture the spirit of mingei. Less an antithesis to Modernism than an alternative to it, such projects embraced 20th-century idioms while refusing to accept industrial mass production as the fundamental fact of modernity. “Dad always said that building furniture was just like architecture but smaller,” Mira says. In his houses for his children, the opposite holds true: Like Nakashima’s tables and chairs, they can be read as works of folk art, useful objects that, as Yanagi wrote, “honestly fulfill the practical purpose for which they were made.”
ON THE RAW November day that I visited, Kevin’s house all but disappeared, camouflaged under the slick of fallen leaves that carpeted the compound. Designed a year after Nakashima had signed his contract to create furniture for Knoll Associates, the house became an experiment in low-cost construction at a time of economic optimism and postwar excess: He assembled the low walls facing the property’s entrance out of cinder blocks and fieldstones that he collected from the roadside with Marion and Mira. He used cheap, square-headed nails to fasten wide planks of black walnut and oak to the floor beams that support the house’s simple rectangular footprint as it levitates off the gentle slope below. A drop-ceiling of auburn persimmon wood rests on comet-shaped pegs beneath a shallow-pitched roof originally shingled with hand-cast concrete tiles (they were covered in 1982 with new wooden gables), embracing the small, square rooms like the warm weight of a wool blanket.
Save for a few months spent in Japan, Kevin has spent his entire life in this house, a constant companion to his parents. (In 1975, George designed the more refined Reception House as a home to retire in, but Marion preferred the older, humbler house, so they stayed there with their son). Nearly 16 years after Marion’s death, at the age of 91, Kevin’s home now feels like a secondhand bookstore, crowded with treasures that only its owner could identify and unearth. Clever and eccentric, his body bent with arthritis, Kevin is not part of the studio’s day-to-day operations, though he helped his mother with some accounting before her death. Instead, he serves as the unofficial keeper of the family lore, sharing tales (some perhaps apocryphal) of his grandmother’s time as a court taster in Meiji-era Japan, of the more distant Dutch ancestor who founded the Hecht brewery in Yokohama and of his father’s skills as a pole-vaulter. Over several hours, he pulled photo albums and books from haphazard piles stacked on one of his father’s original chaise longues (in 2008, a comparable piece sold for 37,250 euros at auction, nearly $70,000 at the time) and a one-off early table fashioned from a time-blackened slab of wood that Nakashima found decades ago on a California beach and that anyone else, Kevin says, would have left to rot. “Sometimes I’ll find things that I’ve lost — that’s the problem with living in the same place your entire life,” he told me with a laugh. “I still feel my parents here all the time. I’ll go around a corner and be absolutely sure that they’re there.”
In some sense, they are. The kitchen, for instance, still belongs to Marion, her collection of mildewed cookbooks barely contained by the cabinet doors, their pages marked by personal postcards from Julia Child and the American cartoonist Chuck Jones, both close family friends; the only update, Kevin says, is the stubborn verdigris patina he’s allowed to accumulate on the dull copper backsplash, a sign of age that his mother would never have permitted. In the third bedroom, added to the house after Kevin’s birth, he keeps 35 years’ worth of holiday cards and original sketches from Jones in overflowing photo albums stacked on a wooden shelf that he built with his father as a teenager. Sequestered at the end of the hall, the master bedroom remains his father’s domain, the long credenza below a broad picture window scattered with objects that he accumulated throughout his life, from a disk of pre-Columbian pottery painted with a primitive design of a man climbing a tree trunk to a slab of petrified wood, its polished concentric circles like an unblinking eye.
MIRA’S HOUSE, IN comparison, represents a far more prosperous period in the Nakashima business, built on an adjacent piece of land that the family purchased in 1969. While the home is larger and, in its unassuming way, more dramatic than Kevin’s, it still exemplifies Nakashima’s lifelong commitment to the aesthetic and ethical value of frugality. Raised a half story over a gravel garden, it sits about 300 feet back from the road, as though caught in sudden retreat toward the woods. A blunt fieldstone chimney rises behind a steep shingled roof that projects out over a trough-like porch, connected to the ground by a wood ramp that, from the distance, resembles bamboo: another suburban ranch home, this time filtered through the lens of rural Japan. Instead of a front door opening into the upstairs living quarters, the main entrance is hidden around the side, a threshold set low into the gravel that opens into a narrow, wood-paneled hall lit by an amorphous paper lamp designed by Nakashima’s friend and contemporary Isamu Noguchi.
“There’s a discipline in doing things economically,” Mira told me as I slipped off my shoes and followed her up a narrow flight of stairs that opened into the space between the kitchen and dining area, connected by a free-form countertop of lustrous Persian walnut. “Dad thought if you designed things properly, you could do them inexpensively and they could still be beautiful.” Upstairs, that kind of elegant austerity is on full display: Pale ceilings of birch ply rise at a shallow angle on a scissor truss of Douglas-fir beams, airier and brighter than the soot-aged persimmon at Kevin’s house but no less warm. Floorboards cobbled together from mismatched scraps of black walnut scavenged from the furniture studio fit together like a puzzle, each plank a different shape and size, fastened to the floor beams with round pegs that, Mira says, the builders spent days matching in color and grain to each piece of wood.
If Kevin’s house is an archive in eternal disarray, then Mira’s feels more like a gallery caught between exhibitions, full of beautiful objects strewn haphazardly around a space not quite large enough to accommodate them. Midcentury prints by the Lithuanian-American social-realist artist Ben Shahn, another family friend, hang on nearly every wall in wooden frames made by Nakashima to resemble torii (Japanese shrine gates). Tucked in a corner by the vast picture windows, guarded from the summer sun by shoji screens, a chiming Sonambient sculpture made in the early 1970s by the furniture designer Harry Bertoia, a Knoll colleague, stands quietly, waiting to be touched. Wooden bowls of every shape and size — some made over the years by Mira’s now adult children, others gifted by Nakashima devotees — form totems on the back of a baby grand piano, watched over by a bronze nude, “Following My Feet,” sculpted in 2007 by the contemporary indigenous Tewa artist Roxanne Swentzell.
Where Nakashima ran his studio with dictatorial control, Mira says, requiring strict adherence to his vision, her home reveals a more generous approach. The structure upholds all the signatures of the studio’s work — the spade-shaped kitchen counter, its deep brown grain shot through with streaks of silver; the central post fashioned from a cedar trunk felled on the property that twists up toward the ceiling as though the whole house were just branches — yet it also absorbs her eclectic collection of objects, like a hardwood growing around a fence post.
Despite their different approaches, Nakashima and Mira have each been a constant presence in the day-to-day workings of the studio, philosophically if not literally guiding the creation of every piece. Save for early works that Nakashima designed for Knoll and Widdicomb-Mueller, every piece of Nakashima furniture was, in essence, bespoke, its basic contours dashed out on a small slip of paper that he handed off to a team that grew over the years from one to eight craftsmen, who brought the designs to life with exacting precision through the unique demands of each individual slab. Such total submission to the power of a living material set him apart from his peers, even as he rose to prominence alongside friends and contemporaries like Bertoia, Noguchi, Eero Saarinen and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all of whom contributed designs for Knoll in the same formative period. But while his colleagues turned their genius toward futuristic shapes and industrial materials — think of Bertoia’s sinuous wire webs or the space-age sweep of Saarinen’s fiberglass tulip — Nakashima reflected on nature, on the work that he could do with his own hands and on materials that improved, rather than diminished, with age.
Like his predecessors in the American Craftsman style, the Dutch de Stijl and the English Arts and Crafts movement — all of whom aimed to strip away frivolous ornament while rejecting modern fabrication in favor of a return to the fundamentals of craft — Nakashima objected not to machinery as a tool but rather to the distance it opened between design and production. Where the Arts and Crafts master William Morris saw the brutality and poverty generated by the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, Nakashima and Yanagi, from their homes on opposite sides of the world, watched as the evolution of those technologies precipitated a culture that viewed both objects and their makers as disposable. And while Modernism did ultimately win out in the realm of architecture, filling cities with slabs of concrete and glass curtain walls, the world of design allowed figures such as Nakashima, the German-American textile designer Anni Albers, who worked closely with traditional weavers across Latin America, and the Hungarian-American ceramist Eva Zeisel, who drew on organic forms for her classic tableware, to make work that was as humane as it was modern.
Nakashima’s houses may resemble the suburban vernacular of midcentury America in their horizontality, utilitarian forms and lack of ornament — at first glance, their inherent simplicity almost makes them seem prefabricated — but from within, they’re of a piece with his furniture: constructed by hand, made to change through contact with the people who use them and designed to endure the long, slow process of aging and, eventually, dying. From the vantage point of the 21st century, that may make him the most radically modern designer of them all.
LIKE MIRA AND Kevin, I grew up with Nakashimas, both at my grandparents’ house outside Washington, D.C., and at my own in the suburbs of Baltimore, where a walnut coffee table sat at the center of the family room. I know the contours of that table by heart, the gnarled bays and knobby peninsulas around its edges, and the burl of its silken surface, like cream rising in a cup of coffee. I also remember the scars left by our puppy when he mistook the table for a chew toy sometime in the mid-1990s, not long after Nakashima’s death. My parents were mortified but eventually took the table to be restored in New Hope, where, they still recall, Mira greeted them with a knowing smile and a shrug. This was normal, she told them. Her father had even coined a term for the forced antiquing that happens when an object joins a family: Kevinizing, after his rambunctious son.
Both children’s homes are prime examples of Kevinized spaces, the marks left on their respective surfaces the obvious traces of the lives lived there. The solitary but joyful disarray of Kevin’s home and the collective clutter of Mira’s underscore their humble proportions, but they are not monuments to an architect’s vision or set of dogmas. They do not, like the furniture, carry Nakashima’s signature; they barely make themselves seen. They’re useful, affordable things crafted with care to elevate and dignify the lives of their occupants. Above all, they were made to be abused and altered, wounded and restored — which is to say, they were made to live.
Both of their inhabitants have, in their own ways, dedicated their lives to their family’s history, Kevin in his archiving and Mira in maintaining her father’s studio, extending and shaping its posterity. Yet despite their efforts, that legacy has grown precarious. Kevin has no children, and Mira’s aren’t interested in taking over her role managing 11 craftsmen along with a design and administration team, developing new designs for clients and cataloging historic ones that date back nearly five decades. Though the studio may well persist after Mira and Kevin are gone, it’s unlikely that the work coming out of it will still be signed by one of Nakashima’s descendants. Visiting the compound, what struck me as powerfully as the beauty of the buildings was the air of fragility surrounding this great American craft tradition.
Mira, whose spiritual practices are as diverse as her father’s, approaches the studio’s future with equanimity. Though she would love to pass it on to a family member, for the moment, she is more focused on larger global challenges. She worries about the environment — “there’s getting to be a grave imbalance between the number of people and the number of trees on this planet,” she says — and about design itself, which she sees, much as her father did nearly a century ago, veering away from honest utility, toward frivolity and egoism. Yanagi, whose work she introduced me to, describes such design not only as ugly but as amoral; Nakashima, in his own life, witnessed the short distance between a culture that uses slapdash construction techniques to support an elegant facade and one that uses a righteous wartime effort to mask the human rot that made a place like Minidoka possible. Ultimately, the work of craft is the work of looking: a last bulwark against carelessness.
One of the first places Mira took me after my arrival in New Hope was the immense timber shed called the Pole Barn, conceived by Mira and built at the back of the central compound in 1990, one of just two buildings on site designed by someone other than her father. We stepped through a squared-off doorway shaped, like her father’s picture frames, as a torii. Beyond it, whole tree trunks receded for hundreds of feet along the central aisle, each piece sliced down for future use and tagged with its dimensions and genus; others, already singled out for future jobs, were marked with scrawls of white chalk. Slabs of walnut laid flat on the concrete floor, their surfaces richly figured. “When the grain is crazy like this, that means the tree had an interesting life,” she told me with a smile. “Sometimes, even after the wood is cut, that life can continue.”