5 Asian American Mid Century Designers You Need to Know
Happy Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month!
If you didn’t already know, I am an Asian American man and I own a Mid Century furniture shop. So naturally I found myself thinking about how within the furniture we’ve bought and sold in the past, only 1% of the furniture that we’ve curated has been designed by an Asian American. That realization got me thinking about how the landscape of design has changed since the Mid Century era, and I began to wonder whether there were any key Asian American figures that impacted the design world during that time. After doing some research, I was pretty shocked to see how scarce the number of Asian Americans in this field there were, and how difficult it was to find information on any of them. So in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage month, I’ve gone ahead and compiled a short list of prominent Asian American, Mid Century furniture designers and how they influenced the world of design!
George Nakashima was born in Spokane Washington, the son of Japanese immigrants. Nakashima studied architecture at the University of Washington, later finishing with a master’s degree from MIT. After finishing his studies, Nakashima ventured and lived in France, North Africa, Japan, and India as a young man. During his time in Japan and India, Nakashima worked for Antonin Raymond, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright. Nakashima was largely influenced by traditional Japanese woodworking which he combined with the silhouettes of early American shaker furniture. A style that, at the time, had never been seen before and is still highly coveted to this day.
During the second World War, Nakashima was forced to uproot his family to a Japanese Internment camp in Hunt, Idaho. It was at this Internment camp that Nakashima truly found his style by learning from a carpenter that was trained in traditional Japanese woodworking. With scarce amounts of living space and useable furniture, Nakashima was tasked with crafting chairs, tables, and other types of furniture out of the scrap lumber to make the barracks more liveable. With no real working tools, Nakashima was unable to properly saw the lumber to make straight edge furniture, which was how furniture was normally made. So instead, the furniture he built was with a free-edge (also known as live-edge) which would eventually become his signature aesthetic.
After one year of being imprisoned in the Internment camps, Antonin Raymond successfully sponsored George Nakashima and his family to be released. Shortly after his release, Raymond invited Nakashima to live on his farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima went on to build his home, workshop, and studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania where he worked and lived until he passed away in 1990.
Considered by many as the father of the American studio craft movement, Nakashima’s works are highly collectible for their unique aesthetic and incredible attention to detail. Currently, George Nakashima’s daughter Mira oversees the production of Nakashima furniture on the Nakashima compound in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles California, the son of Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and American journalist Leonie Gilmour. Noguchi traveled all over the world as a young man, apprenticing for renowned sculptors such as Gutzon Borglum and Constantin Brancusi. It was under the tutelage of Brancusi that Noguchi really began to develop his skills in stone-working. After being unable to sell any of his abstract sculptures at his first solo show in New York, Noguchi began to take commissions for portrait busts in order make ends meet.
However, it was through his unique abstract sculptures garnering attention that he began a relationship with furniture titans Herman Miller and Knoll. In collaboration with Herman Miller, Noguchi, along with George Nelson, Paul Laszlo, and Charles Eames produced a catalog of furniture that is widely regarded as the most influential collection of modern furniture ever produced.
Noguchi also produced a number of iconic pieces for Knoll, including the Model 86t Rocking Stool and the Cyclone Table. However, after his work with Herman Miller and Knoll, Noguchi stopped designing furniture until almost 40 years later when he unveiled his Akari Light Sculptures at the Venice Biennale. Noguchi’s Akari lights are iconic and can be seen in homes all over the world.
Isamu Noguchi is widely regarded as one of the most prolific sculptors of the Mid Century era. Most of his works can be found at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in New York City where they are preserved but open to the public for viewing.
Mira Nakashima was born in Seattle Washington, the daughter of legendary furniture maker George Nakashima. From a very young age Mira began to learn the craft of woodworking under the loose guidance of her father. She studied architecture at Harvard University and later received a master’s degree from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. After she completed her studies, Mira began work at her father’s studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania.
After George Nakashima’s death in 1990, the media perception that George was making all of the furniture with his own two hands was so strong that more than half of the orders that were supposed to be fulfilled had been cancelled. Clients believed that without George the furniture would no longer be made the same. In three years time the Nakashima compound found themselves with no more work. It was through the efforts of Mira that the Nakashima studio is still running to this day. Mira is now the creative director of the Nakashima studio and she oversees all of the projects and furniture production. She has kept the legacy of Nakashima furniture alive and continues to champion the allure of handmade furniture.
William Ming Cheong Lam, more commonly known as Bill Lam, was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. In 1941 he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts to pursue a degree in architecture at MIT. Lam’s studies were put on hold when he served in the Army Air Corps for three years as a B-25 co-pilot. Upon returning from his service, Lam continued his studies and completed his degree in architecture from MIT in 1949.
Lam was largely influenced by the works of Alvar Aalto who actually taught at MIT while Lam was a student. After graduating from MIT, Lam founded Lam Workshop in an effort to combine quality electrical lamps and furniture while remaining economical. It was primarily through his work in lighting design that Lam made a name for himself and became a pioneer of the industry.
Lam’s lighting and furniture are highly desirable in today’s market for their technological significance and unique design. Lam’s vision still lives on today through Lam Partners, a firm that was founded by Bill Lam and his partners Robert Osten and Paul Zaferiou.
Miller Yee Fong
Miller Yee Fong was born in Los Angeles, the son of Muey Fong and acclaimed furniture designer Danny Ho Fong. Miller Yee’s parents immigrated from Canton, China in 1936 to Los Angeles where they started the company Tropi-Cali in 1954, later known as Fong Bros Company.
Miller studied architecture at USC where he later went on to teach for many years. Along with teaching at USC, Miller also started his own architecture firm in 1964 and became Tropi-Cali’s principal designer. It was during this time that Miller began to hone his skills as a furniture designer. In 1968 he designed the Lotus chair which would later become part of the permanent collection at LACMA.
Miller Yee Fong and his father Danny Ho Fong produced some of the most recognizable rattan furniture that America had ever seen. Fong Bros company is still pushing out sculptural hand-crafted rattan furnishings. To this day, their vintage furniture is highly collectable by postwar modernism enthusiasts.
Thank you for reading! Hopefully this brought some perspective on some of the struggles that Asian Americans faced during the Mid Century era and how they overcame them. The impact that Asian Americans have had and continue to have is undeniable and should be celebrated! The number of prominent Asian American designers is slowly rising, and the landscape of design will surely change along with it. Here’s to many more amazing designs by Asian Americans!
** I had a difficult time finding any American born Southeast Asian, South Asian, or Pacific Islander designers from the Mid Century - do you know of any? If so, please let me know in the comments below! I’d love to learn about more!
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Very great stories and information. I met and owned many pieces from Mr. Nakashima. He was a gentleman and a gentle man. I was honored to have been with him and personal walk though the barn to select wood.
Amazing piece you have there! We got the photo from an auction site online, I’m assuming that’s where you acquired the piece.
Just wondering where you got the picture of the Kevin table? I’m curious because I own it.
By the way, great article.