Crafting a Legacy

Nakashima Furniture arrives in Santa Fe

At 76, furniture designer Mira Nakashima has worked in the shadow of her father's fame and criticism for nearly 50 years. But for the last 25 years or so, her talent and legacy has been making its mark, and her work is celebrated alongside her father's at an exhibition this weekend as part of Objects of Art at El Museo Cultural.

Her father, George Nakashima, was born in Spokane, Washington, to Japanese immigrants in 1905 and is considered the father of the American craft movement and one of the most important and influential designers of the 20th century. In the 1960s, Mira would attend Harvard's Waseda University in Tokyo for formal design training, and after her graduation in 1970, her father suggested that Mira join him at his studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Although this path meant giving up her own interests in linguistics and architecture, she chose to honor her family and accept the invitation—but her father trained her harshly and his criticism was known better than his praise. Still, Mira excelled, despite the outward perception that George alone ran the show.

"There was a myth when my father was alive that he was doing everything with his own two hands," she tells SFR of the studio in which she and her father worked side by side. "Nobody else was possibly doing that [work], because he was doing it all."

After George's death in 1990, Mira was still a relative unknown despite 20 years as his apprentice, but she was compelled to continue studying the facets of his creativity, from Japanese and Native American culture to the respect of nature and craft tradition and how these things might come together. She further learned that art was not an expression of the ego—as it tends to be in Western culture—but an exploration of material; in the case of the Nakashimas' work, wood. Her father believed every tree has a life of its own, that it serves as witness to generations of humankind in a single lifetime.

After George's death, clients cancelled orders one after another, sending the studio into decline. It wasn't until Mira designed the Nakashima Reading Room as a a permanent contribution to the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, in 1993 that people began to take her seriously. Mira says that press was abundant for the room's unveiling—something she attributes to the ultimate revival of the Nakashima Woodworkers brand, and her design execution and delivery proved that she was more than capable of seriously and respectfully carrying on the family legacy. The studio flourished once again.

Cut to today, as El Museo Cultural welcomes back the Objects of Art Show for its ninth year. The event, co-produced by Los Angeles-based founder Kim Martindale with the assist from international music promoter John Morris, features a curation of 70 exhibitors and dealers who sell a wide range of tantalizing materials such as contemporary arts, furniture, clothing, jewelry, tribal art and more spanning multiple periods and media.

Part of that show is An Exhibition of George and Mira Nakashima Furniture, Santa Fe's first major presentation of the family's work. The exhibition serendipitously came together when Morris, an old family friend of the Nakashimas, invited Mira to curate with current projects and pieces. A number of her father's vintage designs are scheduled to be shown as well, courtesy of Santa Fe's Hunt Gallery and Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburgh.

"The presentation of two generations of Nakashima illustrates Mira's understanding of her father's philosophy of letting the wood speak and dictate its own purpose," John Krena, owner and founder of Four Winds Gallery, says. "We now see the artistic self in Mira is coming to fruition. "

It is difficult to compare the two Nakashimas' works—their individual contributions are merely differing extensions of the same ideologies. Mira, however, says she never felt the need to build anything new, but instead has remained faithfully focused on the building blocks laid by her father.

"A line has been drawn between craft and art and design. The three should be integrated," Mira explains. "We hope these things, along with design integrity and the craftsmanship will somehow be understood, even if not immediately. We hope that people take away that it's important to work with your hands and natural materials in this day and age."

Objects of Art

11 am-5 pm Friday-Sunday Aug. 10-12. $15-$25. El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, 555 Camino de la Familia, 992-0591; tickets here.

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