Friday, April 9, 2010

Designer of the Month: Isamu Noguchi

Week 2: sculpture, furniture and interior design

Isamu Noguchi, Coffee Table (IN-50), 1948. Walnut, wood and plate glass. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Woah, Noguchi table! I put this image first today simply because, of all of Noguchi's work, it's probably the most immediately recognizable. As I mentioned last week, this whole month is going to more along the lines of me sifting through the many works of Noguchi's career and presenting an overview of his life than any intense discussion about process or materials. I'm also going to try and add explanations from Noguchi himself whenever possible, made possible by the wonderful book A Sculptor's World, Noguchi's personal account of his life. So, this coffee table is a good place to begin because it so beautifully represents Noguchi's feeling about his design work. Seeking to make sculpture useful in everyday life, Noguchi's biomorphic furniture and interior design from the 1940s feel more like an extension of his sculptural pieces than separate entities.[1] But as usual, I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. Last week, I mentioned how Noguchi's life changed when he discovered abstraction and went to Paris and became Canstantin Brancusi's assistant. Well, when he came back to New York after Paris, Noguchi was unable to sell his abstract sculptures and instead went back to portraiture, managing to support himself through the depression in this way.[2]
William Douglas sitting for his portrait by Isamu Noguchi, New York City, 1936. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

The above image shows Noguchi working on one of these portraits in his studio. He sculpted about 120 of these heads during his life, including the likenesses of Martha Graham, George Gershwin and R. Buckminster Fuller, who would become a particularly close friend. As Noguchi explains about this period:
There was nothing to do but make heads. It was a matter of eating, and this was the only way I knew of making money. I took the topmost studio in Carnegie Hall and started a quantity of portrait busts of customer friends and just friends, five at a time. The problems of portraiture interested me: the confluence of personality and sculpture where the concentration of characteristics and identity, of sensibility and type, of style, even, belonged, I thought, more to the sitter or his race, than to the sculptor. Or if to the sculptor only as the medium of expression, limited in form, as is a sonnet. Aside from occasionally selling one, it was a very good way of getting to know people.[3]
Isn't that a wonderful quote? I love the idea that these heads were how Noguchi met so many of the people who would become influential in his life. But the portraiture didn't last forever. He did go back to abstraction, doing so most noticeably during the 1940s, when he was particularly influenced by the biomorphic imagery of Eurpean Surrealism, becoming especially well known for his sculptures of interlocking elements.[4]

Isamu Noguchi's studio at 33 MacDougal Alley, New York City, ca. 1945. Photo by Andre Kertesz. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Here's another view of Noguchi's studio, this time from 1945, with many examples of these interlocking sculptures, which were also known as slab sculptures because Noguchi utilized marble slabs in the construction of these works. Marble in slab form was relatively cheap in 1940s New York because so many marble yards on the East Side were being condemned, and Noguchi took advantage of this abundance of cheap material to teach himself how to best work with this medium.[5] He explains that:
Unlike working with wood or metals, there could be no temptation to weld or glue. The very limitations of the medium imposed a kind of honesty...I took a particular satisfaction in its fragility, arguing the essential impermanence of life, much as in the Japanese poem. Like cherry blossoms, perfection could only be transient - a fragile beauty is more poignant.[6]
As I mentioned earlier, biomorphism was also a large part of Noguchi's furniture and interior designs from the 1940s. Noguchi got his start in designing objects for commercial use in 1926, with a design for a plastic clock, but his first widely available product was for a nursery intercom called the Radio Nurse, in 1937.[7]

Isamu Noguchi, Cylinder Lamp, 1944. Paper and metal. Manufactured by Knoll Associates. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Besides the now-iconic coffee table, the cylinder lamp, seen above, was another popular and widely-produced Noguchi design. Produced by Knoll Associates, it consisted of translucent plastic mounted on cherry wood legs, "an elegant utility of shade and base."[8] It was during this time that Noguchi became particularly interested in incorporating light into his sculptures, calling both these lamps and the work he did utilizing light in his interior designs his "lunars."[9]

Isamu Noguchi, Ceiling for the American Stove Company Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1947-48. Architect Harris Armstrong, Photo by Hedrich-Blessing. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

You can see an example of one of these lunars in the above image, and Bruce Altshuler discusses them in his essay "Isamu Noguchi: Art Into Life":
Using magnesite, Noguchi molded undulating forms over hidden electric bulbs. Although most lunars were freestanding -- or freehanging -- sculptures, he created a number of lunars meant to function as lighting fixtures. Three of these were offered by Lightolier in 1952 as limited editions. More dramatically, in 1947-48 Noguchi utilized such surreal constructions for three interior designs: A stairwell wall entitled Lunar Voyage on the art-filled S.S. Argentina, the ceiling of the American Stove Company Building lobby in St. Louis, and the ceiling of a reception area in New-York's Time-Life Building.[10]

Even after all of this commercial success, Noguchi experienced a personal crisis in 1949, reconsidering his earlier notions of sculpture as the spatial structuring of the lived environment, and decided to take some time away from New York, returning to Japan in 1950.[11] It was during this time that Noguchi became preoccupied with the development of what he called akari - Japanese light as illumination.[12]

Isamu Noguchi working on an akari frame at the Ozeki & Company in Gifu, Japan, January, 1978. Photo by Michio Noguchi. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

As Noguchi explains about akari:
Looking more fragile than they are akari seem to float, casting their light as in passing. They do not encumber our space as mass or as a possession; if they hardly exist in use, when not in use they fold away in an envelope. They perch light as a feather, some pinned to the wall, others clipped to a cord, and all may be moved with the thought. Intrinsic to such other qualities are handmade papers and the skills that go with lantern-making. I believe akari to be a true development of an old tradition.[13]

Quite a departure from his focus on biomorphisim just a few years earlier, but Noguchi's work was rapidly evolving. During the 1950s, he became more interested in designing public works and spaces, becoming particularly focused on gardens, which we'll take a look at next week, along with Noguchi's designs for playgrounds. Although we're just about to where we'll end this week's discussion about Noguchi's sculpture, furniture and interior designs, Noguchi did, of course, continue to sculpt and design for the rest of his life. Besides Japan, he was greatly influences by trips to Italy, and it was here in 1966 that Noguchi first made sculptures in which large parts of the stone were left unworked.[14] In the later part of his career, stone became a symbol of nature for Noguchi, and carving became "a metaphor for the human confrontation with the temporal, for our intersection with historical, geological and astronomical time."[15] So that's where I'll leave you all this week. Contemplating Noguchi's sculptural metaphors.

Isamu Noguchi, The Roar, 1966. White arni marble. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi, Momo Taro, 1977-78. Granite. Collection of the Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York. Photo by Shigeo Anzai. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi, Practice Stones (left) and Indain Dancer (right). Photo by Shigeo Anzai. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

Isamu Noguchi, Helix of the Endless, 1985. Granite and basalt. Courtesy of The Noguchi Museum.

[1] The Noguchi Museum online, "Furniture and Interior Design,", (accessed April 8, 2010).

[2] The Noguchi Museum online, "Sculpture: Portrait Heads,", (accessed April 8, 2010).

[3] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 19.

[4] The Noguchi Museum online, "Sculpture: Biomorhphic Sculpture,", (accessed April 8, 2010).

[5] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 27.

[6] Ibid, 28.

[7] Bruce Altshuler, "Isamu Noguchi: Art Into Life," from The Noguchi Museum online,, (accessed April 8, 2010).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor's World, "A Sculptor's World," (New York: Harper & Row Publishers Inc., 2004), 33.

[13] Ibid., 33.

[14] The Noguchi Museum online, "Sculpture: Italian Marble Sculpture,", (accessed April 8, 2010).

[15] The Noguchi Museum online, "Sculpture: Later Stone Sculpture,", (accessed April 8, 2010).


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