Creative Class Hero

Perhaps her difficult upbringing as a Japanese-American in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor played a part in her lack of ostentation. She was born Tomoko Kawakami, in 1931, in Los Angeles. Her parents were florists, and along with many other Japanese-Americans, the family was sent to an internment camp.

In later life she rarely mentioned her incarceration, yet she is on record as saying that it was an experience that “forced many Japanese-Americans to seek new horizons.” And that’s exactly what she did. She studied industrial design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, where she met her husband James Miho.

After graduation, they travelled to Europe where the modernist art and design they encountered had a seismic effect on both of them. As Tomoko told one interviewer, the experience “opened my eyes to design work that was both freer and more structured than we’d learned at Art Center.”

On her return to the USA, she met the graphic designer George Tscherny who sent her to see Irving Harper, Creative Director at the George Nelson office. He hired her on the spot. “It was probably the best place I could have worked at that stage in my career,” she noted. Her arrival was also to mark the beginning of her long association with Herman Miller.

In her view, the Nelson office “was the best design firm in the 1960s, and it was an office with multi-disciplined designers. George Nelson himself was a great influence at that time, an architect, industrial designer and also a great writer about design. He wrote about a new idea for storage systems in his book Tomorrow’s House and the Herman Miller furniture company became interested and made him the company’s director of design.”

One of her coworkers at this time was the graphic designer Lance Wyman. He was to find lasting fame as the lead designer for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Back then, he was a young man learning his trade: “I was very fond of Tomoko,” he told me. “She was obsessed with detail and accuracy. I used to enjoy hiding little mistakes in the work to see if she’d spot them. She always did.”

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