When confronted with his most popularly known product design, a delicate paper lamp named Akari, it seems logical to assume that Isamu Noguchi’s work is grounded on his Japanese-American heritage. But it is rather his overall unconventional and restless upbringing that made him unprejudiced towards forms and materials. His particular interest in Japanese art and culture should emerge only later in his life.
The illegitimate son of the Japanese poet Noguchi Yonejirō and the American writer Leonie Gilmour, born in Los Angeles, spent his childhood in Japan before he was sent to the US for schooling. He went under the name Sam Gilmore at the time. Although his desire to become an artist wasn’t received with much support he got the opportunity to apprentice with the sculptor Borglum, best known for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. But Borglum didn’t recognize Noguchi’s talent and he enrolled for premedical studies at Columbia University in New York.
It didn’t last long and he left the university, took up the name Noguchi again and began to pursue arts full time.
The hostility against Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor had a strong impact on Noguchi. In 1942 he founded the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy. Disappointed by the lacking response he voluntarily got himself detained at an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arizona, hoping to create awareness. His vision to create parks and recreation areas remained a dream.
Post war he travelled extensively and started dividing his time between the US and Japan. The experiences during the war and his travels through Japan immediately afterwards are reflected in his art of the time and seen 1946 at the exhibition Fourteen Americans at the Museum of Modern Art.
As multifaceted as his story is his art. In Japan, China, India, Mexico and various places in Europe and the US he picked up inspiration, unique skills and appreciation for a wide range of materials. He travelled the arts too and ventured way beyond sculptures. Isamu Noguchi was not just a sculptor, but stage designer, landscape architect, product and furniture designer.
His working relationship with the manufacturers, Hermann Miller and Knoll, both leaving plenty of room for the creative process of their designers, turned out to be very fruitful for modern furniture design. The collaboration enriched the design world with sophisticated objects, functional yet with an artistic angle.
The Articulated table is one of the iconic pieces of furniture that have survived trends and anti trends, the only kidney shaped side table that has survived the more than 70 years of its existence with an unharmed reputation.
Initially designed for A.C. Goodyear, president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Hermann Miller picked it up and it turned out to be an immensely popular piece in the 50s. Made of only three pieces it is a skillful combination of unbiased form and rational construction. Two identical pieces at the base are held together by the weight of the glass top. It seems a modern sculpture with a surrealist touch and reflects his approach to design. "Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture."
The Cyclone table, initially thought of as a rocking stool made of wire and wood, turned into a side table. The full sized dining table was introduced only a few years later, suggested by Knoll. For marketing purpose is was paired with a children wire chair by Harry Bertoia, a fellow artist turned designer at Knoll.
A design that many people are familiar with is the Akari paper lamp series. Unfortunately that is likely the case thanks to numerous rip-offs since Noguchi never protected his copyrights and suffered from plagiarism regularly.
The idea for the Akari lamps was conceived during a trip to Japan in the early 50s. The fishermen at the village Geifu used simple lanterns made of bamboo rips and fine paper to attract the fishes at night. Noguchi chooses paper from the mulberry tree and replaces the bamboo rips with wire. This gives him the freedom to shape a series of forms from the classical ball hanging lamp to other rectangular and organic lighting objects that seem to float in the room.
Akari means light, or rather enlightenment, and is truly symbolic for Noguchi’s work. He created the perfect landscape for his art himself at The Noguchi Museum in Long Island, New York.