Isamu Noguchi in his 10th Street, Long Island City, Queens Studio, 1964 | Photograph by Dan Budnik. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 07281.

Dons of Design

Isamu Noguchi

We look at a small portion of work from the Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi. A true giant of the 20th art world, whose influence resonated way beyond his chosen discipline of sculpture.

Isamu Noguchi was the son of two writers, the Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi and the American writer and editor Léonie Gilmour. This literary heritage is perhaps what gave Isamu such a clear way with words, and there is no shortage of illuminating statements from the man himself; either written, or in interviews and films. One of which, from 1949, shortly after the release of his iconic coffee table for Herman Miller, concerns his relationship with design. “I am not a designer. The word design implies catering to the quixotic fashion of the time. All my work, tables as well as sculptures, are conceived as fundamental problems of form that would best express human and aesthetic activity involved with these objects.” Then, as at many other times during the six decades he maintained his artistic practice, he seemed to actively eschew definition. Preferring instead to identify himself as a world citizen, concerned with things that were relevant to all humankind. So the question is: what was it about Noguchi’s approach to objects that resulted in him creating two of the most iconic product designs of the 20th Century?

"I am not a designer. The word design implies catering to the quixotic fashion of the time. All my work, tables as well as sculptures, are conceived as fundamental problems of form that would best express human and aesthetic activity involved with these objects."

Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, Paris Abstraction, 1927-1928, Gouache on paper, 65.4 x 50.2 cm | Photograph by Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 02635.
Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, 4 July 1947 | Photograph by Arnold Newman. Getty Images.

The creation of the coffee table appeared to be relatively effortless. Noguchi was invited by George Nelson, the Director of Design at Herman Miller in the immediate post war period, to do something to illustrate an article he was writing entitled “How to Make a Table”. Noguchi took an idea he had been working on about a continuous loop of wood, simply cut it in two and put a piece of glass on top. The result was a piece of perfect composition, one that delicately balances aesthetic beauty with practical need.

Isamu Noguchi Coffee Table in black, 1944. Image courtesy of the The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum.

Noguchi’s ability to create harmony is evident in all the fields he worked in, whether it was sculpture, furniture, lighting, ceramics, theatre designs, costumes, gardens or architecture. He always seems at home, a kind of a creative polymath, able to turn his attention to a range of different projects, without ever losing continuity or focus. He goes some way to explaining this in the 1972 film profile of him by Michael Blackwood, in which he says: “I am obliged to find my way as a sculptor in relation to place and use, and not because of any preconceived axioms about sculpture. I go from one piece to the next, it’s continuous development. It’s not something that I have intellectually arrived at as a way of doing things. I change with the work.” This fluidity of approach is also evident in his willingness to experiment with materials. He worked with stones such as marble, basalt and granite, with various different woods and metals like stainless steel, chrome plate, cast iron, bronze and sheet aluminium. He even incorporated water into his work.

"I am obliged to find my way as a sculptor in relation to place and use, and not because of any preconceived axioms about sculpture. I go from one piece to the next, it's continuous development. It's not something that I have intellectually arrived at as a way of doing things. I change with the work."

Isamu Noguchi
Ruth Page in The Expanding Universe: Costume Sack, 1932. Wool jersey | Photograph by F.S. Lincoln. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01455.
Isamu Noguchi (design) Octetra Play Equipment, Moerenuma Park, Japan | Photograph by Toshishige Mizoguchi.

For Noguchi, material exploration was not just a theme, it appeared to be something more fundamental throughout his life. His shared passion for the subject can be seen in his relationship with R. Buckminster Fuller, the architect, system theorist, inventor and futurist, who is widely known for populating the geodesic dome and for the ideal of the “American dream of material progress”. Noguchi came under his spell in the 1920s and made a bust of Fuller in 1929. Ever the futurist, he used a chrome-plate finish, which was a technique becoming widely used in car manufacturing at the time. Along with Fuller, Noguchi took a keen interest in primordial forms, geometric structures and in the abundance of natural forms found in the world. Although a focus on materials and forms are legitimate preoccupations for a sculptor, it could be argued that the way Noguchi approached them, with an almost scientific rigour, was a precursor to the “modern” industrial designer we would all recognise today. One who is steeped in the language of materiality, of form and of the human relationship with objects.

Isamu Noguchi, R. Buckminster Fuller, 1929. Bronze, chrome plate, 33.7 x 20 x 25.4 cm | Photograph by F.S. Lincoln. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 01411.
Isamu Noguchi, Akari 25N, 1968, 117 x 83 cm | Photograph by Kevin Noble. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03066.

When it comes to Noguchi’s most widely recognised designs, the Akari Light Sculptures from 1951, it’s frankly incredible how fast he first created them. The story goes that Noguchi was invited by the Mayor of Gifu, a town in Japan with a tradition for making paper lanterns called “cochin”, to create something that would revitalise the lantern industry that had been left stagnant after World War II. The following day Noguchi had created his first two prototypes. He exchanged the traditional candle for a lightbulb and stressed the importance that the design could be packed flat, then unpacked and installed at home. The name Akari was adopted, which is Japanese for “light”, in relation to both illumination and weight. Noguchi saw the object as a sculpture from the very beginning and he would go on to expand the family of Akari shapes in the first three years of production to over thirty models.

AKARI (1953) Models; 27N, 2N, BB3-70FF, BB2-S1 14A, BB1-YA1, 31N, Paper, bamboo, metal | The Kagawa Museum.

Noguchi went into partnership with Ozeki Jishichi Shoten (later Ozeki & Co., Ltd.), one of the traditional lantern makers of Gifu, and the project became a viable business. Various partnerships for international distribution were arranged, which would ensure the success of the Akari project over time. The lamps were exhibited all over the world and were featured widely in the press, in the US they became one of the products associated with a new type of modern living that embraced both function and decoration. Today, the lamps are still made by hand in the Ozeki workshop and produced under licence for Vitra in Europe and Herman Miller in the US and the Far East. In the creation of the Akari Light Sculptures, what Noguchi managed to do was to utilise an existing production method to realise his artistic dream. He once said that the idea behind the Akari was “to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living”.

"The idea behind the Akari was to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living".

Isamu Noguchi

Although later in his career Noguchi became more critical of technical advances, it seems that around the midpoint of the 20th Century, some kind of perfect alignment happened. Between Noguchi’s understanding of materials and the manufacturing possibilities of the time. His later work became increasingly social and humanist, with greater focus going on landscapes, playscapes, gardens and on public realm projects. It was there that Noguchi was able to more fully express his ideas about sculpture having social purpose.

Isamu Noguchi (design) with Shoji Sadao (architect), Play Equipment at Moerenuma Koen, 1988-2004. | Sapporo, Japan.

Noguchi’s artistic legacy is a powerful one, yet it is in the furniture and lighting designs he created that he probably touched the most people. Truly iconic, they combine a mastery of form and material with a deep understanding of how objects make people feel. Noguchi himself was a human for whom the horizon seemed endless, and there is great joy to be taken from that. In the Michael Blackwood film from 1972, Noguchi says: “You know one shifts, backwards and forwards, sometimes I think I am part of this world today, sometimes I feel that maybe I belong in history, or in prehistory, or that there is no such thing as time. If you are caught in time, or in the immediate present time, then your choice is very limited, and you can only do certain things really correctly belonging to that time, but if you want to escape from that time restraint, then the whole world you see, not just the whole industrialised world, but the whole world is some place that you belong.”

"If you are caught in time, or in the immediate present time, then your choice is very limited, and you can only do certain things really correctly belonging to that time, but if you want to escape from that time restraint, then the whole world you see, not just the whole industrialised world, but the whole world is some place that you belong."

Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi tests Slide Mantra at "Isamu Noguchi: What is Sculpture?", 1986 Venice Biennale | Photograph by Michio Noguchi. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 144398.

A big thank you is extended to the Press Team at the Barbican for their support in making this article happen. The Noguchi exhibition at the Barbican runs until the 9th of January 2022 and gives an extensive and poetic overview of his life and work.

Isamu Noguchi Collection

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