September 25, 2020

Highlights from the Shofuso and Modernism Exhibition

Shofuso House and Garden. Photography by Elizabeth Felicelia, courtesy of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Architect Junzo Yoshimura designed the Shofuso Japanese House for the Museum of Modern Art’s “The House in the Museum Garden” exhibition in 1954, inspired by the 16th century Kojo-in house in the Buddhist temple complex, Mii-dera, at the base of Mount Hiei in Japan. Philadelphia’s West Fairmount Park, where a Japanese Temple Gate from the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition had recently burnt down, was later selected for its permanent home as a symbol of postwar peace. A total of 736 crates transferred the de-assembled Shofuso to Philadelphia in 1957, but master carpenter Heizaemon Ito’s nail-free joinery-based instructions brought the house back into its form with a garden designed by an 8th generation generation gardener who also oversaw the house’s garden at MoMA’s courtyard.

“Some believe the house is, in fact, a tool to view the garden,” says Yuka Yokoyama, the co-curator of “Shofuso and Modernism: Mid-Century Collaboration between Japan and Philadelphia,” which opened at the house in early September. The exhibition sheds light on the professional and amicable network between Yoshimura, Japanese American woodworker George Nakashima, Swiss designer Noémi Pernessin Raymond, and Czech architect Antonin Raymond. “You’re in a desk-centric house here,” underlines the exhibition’s other curator William Whitaker, who orchestrated a vignette of objects and furniture at the house’s central study room to visualize the quartet’s geography-pushing conversation.

Interior of George Nakashima Woodworkers. Photography by Elizabeth Felicelia, courtesy of the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Before COVID-19 mandated changes in the exhibition format, the curatorial duo had planned rotating bus trips to nearby George Nakashima Woodworkers and the Raymond Farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania, from the house, but they instead decided to expand the display of the materials, textures, and surfaces in Shofuso. Now, the orchestration of Modernist design overlooks the serene garden’s pine trees, osiria roses, and cherry blossoms with the soothing chime of a three-tier fountain. Between the main room and kitchen, the curators also carved out a dark corner to project a slide show of 74 fittingly 1960s Kodak style photographs that architecture photographer Elizabeth Felicella took at three sites critical to the show. 

Read Interior Design’s highlights from the display which remains on view through November 29.

Lotus Rug, Noémi Pernessin Raymond, ca 1935

“Lotus” Rug, 1935, Wool, 72 x 58 inches, Collection Raymond Family. Designed by Noémi Raymond. Photography by Laszlo Bodo, courtesy of The Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia.

There was no misunderstanding about the mutual thinking both Raymonds brought into their architecture firm; however, Noémi’s name was overshadowed at the time due to sexism. She started as a commercial illustrator in 1920s, creating smoked glass works for churches and later designing for Frank Lloyd Wright. “She was the glue for ‘the boys’ at the office,” says Yokoyama. When Noémi submitted this wool rug to MoMA’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940, she still entered under the corporate Antonin Raymond name. “We have archival letters in which Antonin asks advice on color to his wife,” adds Whitaker. Her involvement with the projects included interiors and orchestration of colors, as well as screen printing later at the farm house in New Hope. This textile adorned with abstract motifs and a reference to leaves manifests her mastery of technique and visual freedom. Japanese influence in the patterns is evident, and so is a Modernist composition.  

Dining Chair for the Oka House, Antonin Raymond and Noémi Pernessin Raymond, 1936

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

The most striking element in this wood and jute chair is a decorative arch crowning the seat’s back. The circular accent, however, also serves as a handle for transportation. Whitaker sees a “delightful rhythm of weaving of the jute” and an Art Deco gesture, an homage to west from the couple’s Tokyo office. They, in fact, were aware of the direction western design was headed at the time through occasional travels to Europe. Particularly Noémi was closely following Le Corbusier and Pierre Chareau from design magazines she was shipping from Paris. 

Firedogs, Noémi Raymond, ca 1952

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

“Humor was important part of Noémi’s design,” according to Yokoyama, “as well as direct inspiration from nature.” So much that, she positioned her desk at their Tokyo firm by the window. This steel duo of dogs is a testimony on her whimsical approach to nature-inspired design with a utilitarian purpose that reflects a medley of east and west. The fire place decoration captures a moment of transformation at Japanese homes in the ‘50s, with a post-Futuristic elongated representation of two canines, designed to be placed over a tatami mat on wooden floors. “If we still take off our shoes, but use hinged doors instead of sliding ones,” says Yokoyama, “this object is a cohesive example of that mixture.” 

Toy Chest, George Nakashima, 1942

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

Nakashima designed this plywood and fir toy chest for his children during their internment at Camp Minidoka in Hunt, Idaho with thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War II. There, he met a master carpenter who trained him in joinery and tool-making, changing the course of his future career as a wood maker and designer. The scarcity of materials and limited access during this grave period taught young Nakashima to be resourceful and inventive within his means. He made the chest from scraps left over from a building, starting with roofing nails but, once they ran out, switching to regular screws at the bottom. The bobbled edge on the chest’s one corner signals another finding among the remnants.   

Mounted Bitterbrush, George Nakashima, ca 1942

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

While getting his hands on utilitarian craft during internment, Nakashima was also in search of the poetic as another introspective method for comforting his dire situation. Idaho desert was generous to inspiration-seekers at the camp with long, dramatically morphing branches growing over several hundreds of years on a vast land. He mounted this serpentine bitterbrush branch onto a walnut leg and kept as memory of human tragedy and embodiment of hope. Besides the artistic gesture, today, the wood’s raw characteristics and aged texture also symbolize a wood maker’s early encounter with the material in its natural habitat.

Desk for the Louis Stone House, Antonin Raymond and Noémi Pernessin Raymond, 1940

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

A daring asymmetry is noticeable in one of three poplar desks the couple designed for abstract artist Louis Stone’s Lambertville, New Jersey house, including one for the children’s room. The model currently on view at Shofuso was designed for the living room with the intention to lean against the wall due to its particular form. The compelling design provides drawer storage on one side and leaves ample room for a single circular leg on the opposite end.

Prototype for American Armchair, George Nakashima, ca 1944

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

Choosing objects from mid to late 1940s when Nakashima started to build his career in the U.S. as a woodworker was crucial for the curators. “This walnut and poplar arm chair is a good example for his mixture of influences, especially from his time India in an Ashram where he developed a spiritual connection to making,” says Whitaker, who also notes the Shakers’ reference on the chair’s back. Nakashima called himself a “Japanese Shaker” and was able to find a common ground for his background in different geographies and his personal ties to them.

Prototype for Milk House Table, George Nakashima, ca 1944

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

During his time at the Raymond Farm after his release from the internment camp, Nakashima furthered his relationship with nature as a wood maker, which started out of an urge for survival on the Idaho desert. He set up his woodworking studio at the milk house, where Raymonds had farmers store milk next to the barn, and suitably named his studio Milk House. This cypress and catalpa prototype is one of the first pieces he made at his studio. Prior to his curvy plank coffee table (1947), which is also in the exhibition, the design and craft here are more didactic and less nuanced or subjective. 

Knoll Model N19 Chair, George Nakashima, ca 1948

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

The Raymonds’ farm in New Hope was frequently visited by influential figures, which helped Nakashima build a network and get a jump in his career. After being released from the internment camp and set up a wood shop at the farm, he met Hans Knoll who had a house in nearby Montgomery County. This birch chair is one of his first designs after starting to work for Knoll while at the same time building a clientele on the side. Despite his formal architectural training at M.I.T., Nakashima only designed just over a handful of buildings, including a few churches in New Mexico and New Jersey, and focused on architectural possibilities of furniture.

Lamp, Noémi Pernessin Raymond, 1952

Photography by Laszlo Bodo.

Biomorphic fittingly defines this elegant desk lamp which Pernessin Raymond envisioned with her usual fascination for nature, particularly human form in this case. Similar to her steel dogs, whimsy and fun are evident in this metal, rattan, and paper creation, which slightly replicates a person with an oversized hat. “This might be one part of a ‘his and her pair,’” says Whitaker who came across an archival photograph of the lamps at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design where he is the Curator and Collections Manager. The image shows two similar pieces sitting in the back corner of the couple’s Tokyo house where they lived until they returned to U.S. in the ‘70s.

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