Isamu Noguchi: Everything Is Sculpture

International Life and Influence

Isamu Noguchi was born on November 17, 1904, in Los Angeles but lived in Japan for much of his early childhood. His mother was American, but his estranged father was Japanese. From the very beginning of his life, he had one foot in two very different worlds. “With my double nationality and my double upbringing, where was my home?” he once said. “Where were my affections? Where my identity?” He loved to travel, completing many celebrated public works and sculptures around the world, as well as experimenting with new artistic techniques and materials.


Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi had an artistic career that spanned six decades. Since his death in 1998, his influence and reputation has only continued to grow. Strangely, the first sculptor that Noguchi apprenticed with, Gutzon Borglum, told him at the age of fifteen that he would never have the talent to become a sculptor. This almost prompted him to pursue a career as a doctor, but Hideyo Nogouchi, a bacteriologist and physician, encouraged him to reconsider. This opinion was echoed by the Japanese dancer Michio Itō. Noguchi decided, thereafter, to take evening sculpture classes, where he was mentored by the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon found his essential footing and left the pre-med program at Columbia University, to later study sculpture in Paris with Constantin Brâncuși, from 1927 to 1929. It was there that modernism and abstraction first became major factors in his own art.

At times, Isamu Noguchi led a very politically charged life. The persecution of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Peal Harbor had a profound influence on him, coalescing with his formation, in 1942, of the group Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy. This was an attempt to raise awareness of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans. He even volunteered to be placed in an internment camp, but his political activities only increased the suspicion of authorities. During the war, many radio-intercom models designed by him were destroyed, because they were created by a Japanese designer and had a Japanese name on their exterior. It may not be surprising, therefore, that Isamu decided to spend considerable time in Japan or traveling after the war.


Noguchi Cocktail Table

Art for the Masses: The Noguchi Table

“Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.” – Isamu Noguchi.

Isamu Noguchi, created both public and private art and he was a strong believer that art should be incorporated into everyday objects. He did not shy away from opportunities to design and mass-produce functional objects. In 1947, Herman Miller introduced the now iconic Noguchi table. Without need of superfluous connectors, it is a lake of glass, floating on a wooden base, comprised of two identical connecting curves of boat-like wood. It was originally made of walnut, birch, cherry, and later ebonized walnut.

Even today, it appears at once simple and starkly modern but with highly classic sensibilities. The 1947, Herman Miller catalog described the Noguchi coffee table as “sculpture-for-use,” and “design for production.” Its tripod base was proportioned for perfect balance with a built-in counterweight, with a high quality, hand-rubbed stain that resists scratches. Due to continuing demand, production of this iconic Mid-Century modern design continues today, although it was originally discontinued in 1973. It was reissued in 1980 for a short run of four-hundred and eighty tables, but since 1984, it has been a staple of the “Herman Miller Classics” line. George Nelson, another famous designer on staff at Herman Miller memorialized it forever in his article, “How to Build a Table,” where it served as the main illustration.

Interestingly, this elegant design was originally created from three pieces or repurposed carefully sculpted material, but its popularity and influence has held sway now for more than six decades. The table’s tripod design was a carry-over from an earlier chair he introduced to T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, before the war. While Isamu Noguchi, was in the internment camp, production began on the chair’s design, without commission or commiseration. When confronted, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, claimed that, “anyone could design a three legged chair.”

Sculpting With Light

Having moved to Japan with his new wife Yanmaguchi after the war, Isamu Noguchi, again sought to balance different influences to create new synergies of function and form. His Akari light sculptures married the old paper and candle-lantern industry of Gifu with modern tastes for stylish electric lights. Their popularity grew throughout the fifties and sixties. These folding sculptures of light are still made by hand there today, using mino-gami paper made from the bark of mulberry trees.


Noguchi Cyclone Table

The Cyclone Table

The Cyclone Table, another Mid-Century furniture marvel, as produced today by Knoll and the Noguchi foundation, was originally conceived in 1953 as a rocking stool. Constructed from a vortex of chrome-plated wire with a cast-iron black porcelain-finished foot and a wooden circular top, the Noguchi Cyclone table was produced in a variety of sizes. A smaller version originally acted as a companion to the Bertoia wire children’s chair, but it was enlarged to its more popular full size in 1957, at the suggestion of Hans Knoll. Modern versions, produced from Isamu’s original drawings, are available in both black and white with an exposed birch edge and a laminate top.

Biomorphism’s Continuing Influence

“To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school. I am always learning, always discovering.” – Isamu Noguchi.

While, Noguchi art and designs can not be classified to simply follow a single school of artistic influence, many of his pieces display characteristics of biomorphism. This term was first used by the British writer Geoffrey Grigson to describe various cubist and abstract art forms and natural shapes. It also has connections to Surrealism and Art Nouveau. Noguchi’s use of such organic configurations, combined with industry and mass-production, make art accessible to everyone. His embodiment of nature contrasting with the man-made world can also be seen in his most commonly chosen materials, such as wood, paper and stone, often paired with metal or glass.

Isamu Noguchi lived in a time where it was not at all common for an artist to explore so many artistic and cultural disciplines, but he continues to be a profound influence today in both art and design. His range of projects was colossal, including: architecture, gardens, set design, public art pieces and fountains, furniture, ceramics, and lighting. However, in all things he was a sculptor. He believed that sculptors should shape space to give order and meaning that is in perfect harmony with its surroundings. That talent for infusing even everyday objects with profound meaning has carried his reputation and influence past his death to our modern age, proving that a three legged chair has more than enough to stand on.