How an Iconic Japanese-American Woodworker Inspired This Highland Park Design Project
Fascinated by the contemporary wooden furniture made by George Nakashima, who traveled the world before being interned in a World War II camp, David Lagnese designed the third floor of his Highland Park home around Nakashima’s work.
When interior design enthusiast David Lagnese and his wife, Cristy, first visited George Nakashima Woodworkers in New Hope, Pa. in the late 1980s, the couple was blown away by the immaculate furniture they discovered there.
Nakashima 一 the iconic Japanese-American designer who opened the nature-centered home and wood studio in 1945 after his release from a World War II internment camp in Idaho 一 inspired Lagnese to redesign the third floor of his century-old home in Highland Park.
Lagnese says he enjoys doing extensive research on Nakashima, who traveled the world before his internment, and other modernist Japanese designers.
“If I see a designer I like, I’ll go back and research that designer and all the influences that person had,” Lagnese says. “Because you then learn about like, ‘What made them tick? What was the essence of their design brilliance?’ I just think that’s an interesting way to do it.”
Lagnese began the ongoing design project for his primary bedroom in 2017. He has since commissioned Japanese-inspired details such as a soji screen, mirror, bed and nightstands by local woodworker Tadao Arimoto, who studied industrial design at the International Design Institute in Kyoto, Japan before making Pittsburgh his home more than 40 years ago.
The bedroom also includes an orange womb chair, one of the most recognizable Knoll pieces created by Finnish designer Eero Saarinen, as well as various Japanese artworks and woodblock prints. Lagnese hopes to finish the project by August.
He adds his favorite furniture pieces are the sleek conoid desk and armchair he commissioned from George Nakashima Woodworkers.
After onetime Frank Lloyd Wright employee Antonin Raymond secured the release of Nakashima, his wife, Marion and daughter, Mira, in 1943. The family followed Raymond to New Hope, where Nakashima bought land and started building a home and woodworking studio, according to Architectural Digest magazine. Today, the estate is headed by Mira Nakashima, who oversees the production of her father’s designs.
“I’d always been fascinated by [Nakashima’s] designs and his work but could never afford it,” he says. “He’s been dead for a long time, but his daughter continues to run the woodwork and so you can go to the studio in New Hope and commission pieces and they’ll build them for you. It takes a while, but it’s worth the wait.”
Lagnese adds that one of the most exciting parts of the project has been working closely with Arimoto, who has a studio on the North Side.
“We’ve worked with Tadao for three years now, and as a Japanese woodworker, he knows Nakashima. That’s one of his heroes,” Lagnese says. “To work with him and get his input and creativity, I’ve just learned so much from working with him. He’s put a lot of thought and care into the pieces that he designed for us.”
Aside from waiting for some final elements of the project, including custom-made rugs, window treatments and cushions, Lagnese is writing a story that details his thought process and research for the project. Although he doesn’t plan to publish it, he wants to pass it on to his children so they could learn about his fascination with design.
“When COVID started, and I was sitting around at my house by myself, I just started writing,” he says. “I figured at some point, my children 一 who are adults now 一 will inherit all this furniture. I want them to understand the intricate thought process and history behind all these beautiful pieces.”
Conoid desk and Armchair: George and Mira Nakashima
Bed and nightstands: Tadao Arimoto
Mirror: Tadao Arimoto
Soji Screen: Tadao Arimoto
Womb Chair: Eero Saarinen
Lighting: Castore: Michele de Lucchi and Huub Ubbens, LED Net: Michele de Lucchi and Alberton Mason, Calipso: Neil Poulton, Meteorite: Pio and Tito Toso, Akari: Isamu Noguchi
Japanese Woodblock Print: Shinsui
Rugs: George Nakashima