William Wegman recalls his visit to the studio of late furniture maker George Nakashima
Into the woods
In April, my assistants and I packed up the car with photo equipment and set off with my dogs Topper and Flo to meet Mira Nakashima at the Nakashima studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Many beautiful photographs of the interior and exterior of the buildings and grounds have been taken by professional photographers and I thought I knew what to expect. I imagined all sorts of photographs I might take.
Earlier that spring, Frédéric Chambre of Piasa had come to visit and suggested that we work together on a Nakashima project. I love dogs and I like furniture yet when this opportunity arose to photograph my dogs with a collection of Nakashima masterpieces I found myself oddly hesitant. All that wood. As beautiful as they both are, I couldn’t imagine what I might be able to do. It is usually my own furniture or a stray table or chair discovered on the street that ends up in my pictures and I am not used to treating props with reverence and respect. What to do with work of such serene elegance? Frédéric is very convincing, however, and I agreed. The furniture arrived at the studio, seamless colours were selected and – with a great deal of trepidation – we began. By the end of the week of shooting, spirits rose and misgivings vanished. Flo, with her intense will to do the right thing, brought a necessary psychic weight to the process and Topper, posing proudly, a touch of the heroic. My appreciation of the Nakashima aesthetic and profound craftsmanship deepened. What struck me about working with my dogs and the Nakashima furniture is how alike they are. Dog and furniture blend together and at times become one and the same.
We arrived in New Hope by midmorning. The dogs bolted out of the car and made a beeline for the woods. I followed them and tried to coax them back from the wild but they were crazy with all this nature and behaving like barbarian invaders. Any thought of bringing them inside vanished. Topper, appropriately named, ran along a supporting ramp right to the top of what I later found out was the Nakashima-designed Minguren museum. The building was a mountain and Topper a goat. Fortunately I had my camera. I tried posing them as they peered down from a balcony at a Ben Shahn mural on the exterior wall below but gave up. In the studio they might be my dogs but not here. Here, in the grounds of the Nakashima compound, I had no choice but to let them be dogs. I wondered what Mira Nakashima would think of these beasts roaming the property like they owned it.
As I was attempting to photograph Flo on a very interesting chair with a narrow back safely located outside the reception area, Mira appeared. She told me that this was a chair that she had designed to accommodate a chamber musician. She plays the flute. This lead to an animated conversation about music, especially early music, an interest we share. She told me about the harmonics systems sometimes embedded in the furniture design.
Mira brought me to the massive barn she had created to house and organise the wood selected by her father, a library of rich, craggy slabs that would one day live as furniture. She explained briefly her father’s belief that in making a piece of furniture he was giving a second life to the tree he used. The dogs calmed down long enough for me to pose and photograph them, their elegant nuanced texture playing off the natural beauty for which this wood had been chosen by Nakashima. They were completely at home. Perhaps they thought they were in the studio.
As originally featured in the October 2015 issue of Wallpaper* (W*199)