Installation view of Shofuso & Modernism (photo by Constance Mensh, courtesy the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia)

PHILADELPHIA — Shofuso and Modernism, the current exhibition at the Shofuso House, surprised me. It wasn’t the content, which satisfies on many levels. I knew to expect furniture by George Nakashima, as well as architectural renderings by Antonin and Noémi Raymond and their protegé, Junzo Yoshimura; all had worked together over several decades and across continents. What excited me was the spirit of camaraderie that runs throughout the exhibition.

This sensibility recedes when Nakashima’s furniture stands alone or when designs by the Raymonds and Yoshimura sit tucked away. It becomes apparent in arrangements of the furniture and photographs by curators Bill Whitaker and Yuka Yokayama. 

Designed by Junzo Yoshimura, Shofuso House was first built in a workshop in Nagoya, Japan, in 1953, before being dismantled and rebuilt twice (in New York and then Philadelphia). It is modeled on a traditional Japanese 17th-century house and garden, with sliding doors between the rooms and a predominantly open-air design. Visiting the house can feel like stepping out of time, its trees, flowers, and walking paths arranged to stir curiosity. The rooms usually hold no more than a low table or two and have tatami flooring. Although Shofuso and Modernism alters this set-up — featured works are contained within the two main rooms that face the koi pond — it doesn’t upset the aura of the building or grounds. The curators have used the space wisely.  

A selection of archival photographs evinces the sense of intimacy between the four designers. One of the first that caught my eye was the “Staff Portrait of the Raymond Architecture Design Office, Tokyo, Japan, 1935.” The Raymonds are in the lower left. Noémi leans on her husband’s lap while their colleagues flank them to their right, left, and rear. Each person approaches this portrait with a different attitude: some smile, some look serious, some have a swagger. The clear camaraderie in the photo shows this firm was built on mutual respect.

Archive photograph. Front row from left: Noémi Raymond, Junzo Yoshimura; middle row third from the left: Antonin Raymond; back row, fifth from the left: George Nakashima (courtesy the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania)

Next to the staff photo is the architectural rendering for the Kitsuke Akaboshi House, Tokyo (1931-32), designed by the Raymonds and Yoshimura, as well as an interior shot of the house, from the wife’s room into the children’s room. The light coming into the rooms, and the clean lines of the furniture, exude calm. The Raymonds were different from some modernist architects. Skyscrapers weren’t their goal. They wanted to build houses for friends, and emphasized lifestyle over other motivations.

Antonin and Noémi Raymond established their own firm in Tokyo in 1921, after working for Frank Lloyd Wright. Yoshimura and Nakashima joined the firm in the 1930s, and it operated until just before World War II broke out. One of the final projects was Sri Aurobindo Ashram (1935) in Pondicherry, India. Nakashima was responsible for the schematic design, and made some of his first furniture pieces while there. It was the first modernist building on the subcontinent. 

Upon returning to the US, Antonin Raymond, a naturalized American citizen, set up a new firm with his wife, based in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1939. Their goal was to develop a practice that synthesized International Style and Japanese craft traditions. 

George Nakashima, “Milk House Table” (c. 1944) (photo by Laszlo Bodo)

Nakashima, American-born, returned home to Seattle in 1940, where he began to teach woodworking and make furniture. By March 1942, he had been imprisoned, with his wife and six-month-old daughter, at Camp Minidoka, Idaho, an internment camp. Remarkably, while there he further developed his skills as a woodworker under the tutelage of Gentaro Hikogawa. In a cruel irony, he was also tasked with designing some of the camp’s buildings; a far cry from the ashram, built for spiritual devotees, he was forced to create buildings designed to intern families, including his own.

By May 1943, Antonin had sponsored the release of the Nakashima family from Minidoka. Nakashima joined his old colleagues in New Hope, where he started his own furniture-making workshop. One of his earliest furniture designs, “The Milk House Table” (c. 1944) takes its name from his first workshop in the milk house on Raymond Farm. It is on view in the main room of the house, along with a few of his chairs, which blend the simplicity of Shaker design with the Japanese craft traditions he picked up over the years. Noémi Raymond’s fabric design “Striped Fields” (early 1940s) serves as a backdrop to the delightfully full arrangement of furniture in this room. The fabric company Schumachers began mass producing this design by the late 1940s. 

As the Raymonds and Nakashima rebuilt their lives, they increasingly acknowledged and incorporated the natural world in their design work. The Nakashima workshop, for instance, provided everyone a window in their workspace. The Raymonds continued to receive commissions for large projects, such as the interior of the Huyler Building (1939-1940) in Buffalo, New York, and the Divine Word Seminary Chapel of Nanzan University (1962) in Nagoya, Japan. While they may have shifted to country living, they continued to be as cosmopolitan as ever. 

Grounds of Shofuso House (courtesy the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia)

In the smaller front room is a poignant dual-screen slideshow of Elizabeth Felicella’s photographs taken on Raymond Farm earlier this year, just after COVID-19 lockdowns began around the country. Presented in 35 mm on traditional Kodak slide projectors, the click and hum has a nostalgic feel, evoking classrooms and family rooms of years past. As Whitaker explains, the association with education and travel is an essential element for visitors to the exhibition. He wanted to connect three places: Japan, Raymond Farm, and Shofuso. The slideshow finishes the work that the furniture and architectural renderings started by helping visitors visualize the workspaces and relationships between these designers.

Shofuso and Modernism seems just the thing to counteract the noxious air that has surrounded us for much of 2020. The featured designers lived in a time of political unrest and trauma, of xenophobia and oppression in the US and abroad. The exhibition is a reminder of alternate models of living. It feels almost impossible to imagine this now. Surely, it must have felt that way then. 

Shofuso House is closed through 2020. Shofuso and Modernism can be explored online through the exhibition website.

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Stan Mir

Stan Mir is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in The Asian American Literary Review, Jacket2, Seedings,...