As organic shapes and paper lanterns keep popping up in the pages of shelter magazines, it's hard not to think of Isamu Noguchi, whose sculptural mid-century furniture and lighting designs are still popular today. Like many prominent designers, his story is a window onto a fascinating time in history, an era of increasing globalization and the resulting xenophobia, and the transcendent power of art.
Noguchi was born in LA in 1904 to an unmarried American writer. When he was 4 he and his mother traveled to Tokyo to reunite with his father, a Japanese poet, but by 1910 they were living in different cities again. Noguchi and his mother moved around Japan throughout his childhood until he was sent to the US for high school in 1918. In 1922, Noguchi moved to New York and began his undergrad studies in pre-med at Columbia. His mother moved to the city the following year.
Noguchi knew even then that he wanted to be an artist. His mother had encouraged Noguchi's artistic sensibilities since he was little. At her suggestion, Noguchi started taking night classes in sculpture and quickly found his footing as an artist, quitting Columbia and setting up a studio in Greenwich Village.
Noguchi lived in Paris for a couple years on a Guggenheim Fellowship, where he worked for Constantin Brancusi and hung out with Alexander Calder, exploring abstract sculpture and painting. Next, he traveled to the USSR and to China, where he studied Peking brush painting (image 2), and back to Japan, where he had a reunion with his father that his biographer describes as "difficult."
Back in New York, educated and inspired by his travels, Noguchi's career really took off. He made sculpture, but also designed parks, monumental sculpture and interior architecture. He designed stage sets for Martha Graham, a memorial bridge in Hiroshima (image 9), and gardens at places like the UNESCO headquarters in Paris and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Noguchi did not design much furniture, but what he designed became instant classics. Knoll produced an early cylindrical lantern in 1944, and his cyclone table and stools in 1955 (image 3). Herman Miller produced his famous biomorphic coffee table in 1947 (image 4) and his freeform sofa in 1948 (image 5). In 1952, Noguchi began designing his famous Akari paper lanterns, inspired by the lamps used by Japanese fishermen (images 6 &7):
"The name akari which I coined, means in Japanese light as illumination. It also suggests lightness as opposed to weight. The ideograph combines that of the sun and moon. The ideal of akari is exemplified with lightness (as essence) and light (for awareness). The quality is poetic, ephemeral, and tentative. Looking more fragile than they are akari seem to float, casting their light as in passing."
Noguchi's work took mid-century biomorphism to new heights of sculptural beauty and allusive brilliance. Noguchi played with Japanese culture and artistic tradition from an in-between position, neither a native son nor a Western outsider. And of course his influence was not just Japan; he was a world traveler, worked and socialized with the great artists and designers of the 20th century, and enjoyed a long reputation as one of America's leading artists.
Noguchi's relationship to Japan was certainly unusual, colored by his strained and distant relationship with his father. But that part of his identity was obviously very important to him, and he honored his Japanese origins in his work and his personal life. Known as Isamu Gilmour throughout his childhood, he took on his father's name once he became a sculptor. And in 1942, Noguchi was so horrified by the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II that he traveled to Washington in the hopes of having some positive influence there. He then voluntarily moved to a Relocation Center in Arizona for seven months, where he taught art classes in order to help improve the lives of the internees, and to try to mitigate their loss of autonomy and dignity. Of his decision, he later wrote, "With a flash I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone. I was not just American but Nisei. A Japanese-American."
Noguchi's story of dual national identity is hardly unusual; in fact, it is a story shared by many Americans, including many Americans of Japanese descent (like the famous woodworker George Nakashima). But it is in part his exploration of identity and of two different cultural traditions that made Noguchi's work so compelling, and so universal.
At the same time, Noguchi wrote about Japan as a source of inspiration and education, without emphasizing his personal history:
"Why do I continuously go back to Japan, except to renew my contact with the earth? There still remains unbroken the familiarity with earthly materials and the skill of Japanese hands. How exquisitely functional are their traditional tools. Soon these, too, will be displaced by the machine. In the meantime I go there like a beggar or a thief, seeking the last warmth of the earth."
In 1968, the Whitney held a retrospective of Noguchi's work, and he published an autobiography the same year (which these quotes are from). In the early 1980s, he constructed the Noguchi Museum, in Long Island City, which officially opened in 1985 and is still a wonderful destination today. Isamu Noguchi died in New York in 1988.
Sources: My main source for information, quotes and images is the Noguchi Museum website, which has an extensive section on "Noguchi's Life and Work," including a timeline by biographer Bruce Altschuler. The Noguchi Museum shop sells much of Noguchi's furniture, as does Design Within Reach and Vitra.
Images 1 & 2 The Noguchi Museum; 3 John Gould Bessler for House Beautiful; 4 Angus McRitchie for House and Home; 5 Vitra; 6 Apartment Therapy New York; 7 Design Within Reach; 8 Vitra; 9 & 10 Noguchi Museum.