Celebrating the Straight Chair: A conversation with Mira Nakashima
May 26, 2009 | An exhibition on view through June 6, George Nakashima and Knoll: The Making of an Object, at the Design Center at Philadelphia University explores the history of a single chair designed by George Nakashima. Named the Straight-Back Chair or simply the Straight Chair, it was among the few designs that Nakashima, known for his handcrafted studio furniture, allowed to be mass-produced by Knoll, who made a version of it called the N19 from 1946 until 1954. In 2008, Knoll decided to reissue the N19 chair so that it might be appreciated by a new generation. In the exhibition, this design and collaboration are illuminated through tools, prototypes, plans and design drawings, video, and production pieces. I recently spoke with Nakashima's daughter, Mira—a woodworker, designer, and director of George Nakashima Studios—about this time-honored chair and its place in the legacy of her father's work.
The Straight Chair made by Nakashima Studios and the Knoll N19 version were both produced at the same time. Was the design originally intended for mass-production? Was the studio version made after the Knoll chair was discontinued?
No, I don't think that it was. The first version of the Straight Chair was made around 1944, and it wasn't produced by Knoll until around 1946. In fact, my father's entrance into the furniture industry was with the intent of not mass-producing at all. He realized there was a breaking point at which one couldn't do it all by hand, so did make concessions to using power machines to a certain degree. But he also felt that it was extremely important to do at least part of the work by hand—that is what gives it its quality and is really the mission of his furniture. Because we experience furniture in a tactile way, the maker, as well as the user, has a relationship with the wood and the piece, and that relationship is missing when you do everything with machines. He was very much a part of the Arts and Crafts tradition, which thought that the whole industrial production process was dehumanizing, as well as the Mingei movement, which revived craft traditions in Japan.
We stopped making the Straight Chair around 1958/1960. Although in 1954 my father designed the New Chair, which was meant to replace it, but I believe they were both simultaneously made for a period of time.
The vernacular design of the N19 chair seems very different from the aesthetic that Knoll promoted in the post-war era. What effect do you think the association with Knoll had on your father (and vice versa)? How do you think he felt about it?
Yes, the Nakashima furniture is very different from others in the Knoll catalog. Antonin Raymond, whom my father worked with, had an architectural office in New York City, and had probably heard of the Knolls and invited them down to Raymond Farm in New Hope, Pennsylania, where my family stayed from 1943 until 1944/1945. In the early days there was a group of designers with Knoll my father responded pretty well to, so he believed he was in good company. Through Knoll he met Harry Bertoia—they were very good friends—and Isamu Noguchi. He was happy to have people to work with who did sort of the same thing as him, and he could bounce ideas off them, or trade things with them. I think it was an interesting personal relationship as well as an interesting environment of other designers. I think he was fond of the Knolls—Shu (Florence) Knoll he worked with quite well.
However, there was correspondence between my father and René d'Harnoncourt (from the Museum of Modern Art) when he was developing the chair designs, and it was not an easy process. He did say at one point that he didn't quite like the "smell" of Knoll, because it was mass-produced, and his business was a protest against mass-production. The reason he went into furniture and left architecture was that he felt the way that it was done in the United States was out of control. The craftsmanship was not there, and the relationship between client and maker and designer was gone. With furniture he could control the process from the beginning through to the end, even working with the client directly instead of working with a distributor.
Do you have any personal recollection of the Straight Chair—was it used in your house?
Yes, I remember we had the very earliest prototype chair (currently on view at the Design Center, illustrated above), which had a flat seat and was made from different types of wood. Then my father's best friend, Stanley Brogren—he collected all the Nakashima prototypes he could—got it from my father. He used it in his own house until the American Craft Museum exhibition in 1989, when he gave it back to my father.
In your opinion, how does the Straight Chair relate to other designs made by your father?
The Straight Chair is a really simple form, and perhaps a more familiar form than some of the other chairs. One of the distinct features of the chair is the very severe arch of the back. The crest rail itself is the same height as arms would be so that it's a back, but you can also use the sides of the back as if they were arms. The New Chair, which followed it, doesn't have the severe curve. It just has the crest rail and doesn't have arms, except for the armchair version in which they are separate.
How did the current collaboration with Knoll come about, and how does this chair differ from the original?
Henk van Hekken from Knoll came by several years ago and said that they were interested in putting it back into production. We hadn't made the Straight Chair since about 1958 and didn't have any intention of making it again, so we agreed. It was also arranged that all the royalties would go to the Nakashima Foundation for Peace. To start, the design team came and looked at the old chairs that we have in our museum. They picked the one that they liked the best and took it and documented it, scanned it into the computer, etc. As far as form goes it's as close as you can get to the original. They put it through all kinds testing so it's sturdy and well made, but it has a very different feel from the original chair because it's mass-produced. The new version is made entirely of steamed walnut so it's a different color, and the spindles are faceted, not hand-shaved. It has a catalytic varnish finish, which is completely smooth and even, and doesn't have depth of color that the oil finish gives, and, of course, it doesn't have the hand rubbed feel of a studio-made piece.
Images from above: Installation view at the Design Center of Philadelphia University; Straight Chair prototype, about 1944; Straight Chair design plans; New Chair, 1958. Courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design; Straight Chair reissue by Knoll, 2009.