Throughout his numerous lives and careers Isamu Noguchi practised as an artist, set designer, garden designer, furniture designer, lighting designer, etc…. yet through all incarnations he remained one thing: a sculptor.
Isamu Noguchi’s most popularly known work is inarguably his Akari lamps, yet before Akari there came a lamp which in many regards exists more in context of the man and his art than its more famous relations…..
Born in Los Angeles on November 17th 1904 Isamu Noguchi spent his early years in California before moving with his mother to Japan in 1907, returning to America, alone, in 1918 to attend Interlaken School in Rolling Prairie, Indiana. And spent a large part of the subsequent decades until his death in 1988 moving between Japan and the USA, physically, metaphysically and culturally.
We’ve dealt, when all too briefly, with Noguchi’s biography in a previous post, our intention here is to, well, illuminate one aspect of that biography. Light.
According to Nina Murayama, Isamu Noguchi’s first dabbling with light was 1928’s Power House, “a sculpture made of neon tube and inspired by the Modernist, futuristic embrace of technological advancement.”1 All that remains of Power House today is a zinc model, but one in which you can see the unmistakable intention of making the light the lamp, of using the new technological and material possibilities to craft the tangible from the intangible, and that in a form which, though half-hidden amongst the twists and turns, has unmistakable parallels to Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker’s 1923 Bauhaus lamp. A work it is questionable an Isamu Noguchi would have been aware of in 1928. But not impossible.
The fact that Isamu Noguchi should have experimented with emerging neon light technology is very much in keeping with his interest in materials; for although very much a devotee of direct sculpting, as opposed to indirect casting or moulding, Noguchi’s oeuvre demonstrates how freely, easily and regularly he switched between materials, or as he himself once noted “everything was sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I considered sculpture. I worked with driftwood, bones, paper, string, cloth, shell, wire, wood and plastics; and magnesite which I had learned to use at the World’s Fair: the way it works thin with burlap re-inforcing, permits shell like hollow structures.”2
That introduction to magnesite presumably came at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and Noguchi’s first magnesite work appeared the same year, his Musical Weather Vane, a magnesite object with channels and groves through which the breeze is transformed to sound as in an Aeolian harp, and a work which obviously inspired Noguchi, “now with the thinness I could achieve with magnesite” he later wrote, “I thought of a sculpture in which the light source was integrally embedded”3
That sculpture would come, but, arguably, required the input from two important moments in Noguchi’s biography: his cooperations with the choreographer Martha Graham and the Second World War.
In 1935 Isamu Noguchi created his first set design for the Martha Graham Dance Company, a scenography to accompany Graham’s solo piece, Frontier, the first of over 20 set designs in a partnership that lasted some 30 years, and an experience which very clearly influenced Noguchi’s understandings of scale, of the relationships between objects and space, and of sculpture, or as he himself opined, “the volume of the stage and how things related within it and to the people moving was a sculptural problem … I was interested in the relationship of movement and space – how they interrelate. To me, just to do a sculpture and plunk it down really doesn’t mean much …. But when it becomes such an integral part that you no longer are conscious of it as a sculpture, then I think it’s good.”4
If an influential experience that was interrupted shortly after it began.
Following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and Japan’s entering the Second World War, all Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent living in California were placed in internment camps. As a resident of New York Noguchi wasn’t obliged to do so, but did so voluntarily; entering Poston War Relocation Center, Arizona, part out of solidarity and part out of an idealistic intention to help improve conditions for the camps residents through organising artistic workshops and helping landscape the camp. A decision he quickly regretted: the reality inside the camp being far removed from the vision promised before entering. A frustrating, demoralising, experience for Noguchi, yet one which in the fertile mind of the artist also became the seed of creativity, “while I was living my dark prison-like life at the relocation camp at Poston”, he later recalled, “I had a never-ending yearning for a brighter world. It was from then that I thought about making a sculpture that had a controllable light. I thought I wanted to free the dark world with akari [light]”5
In November 1942 Noguchi’s request to be released from Poston was, finally, granted, and he returned to New York where he rented a studio in MacDougal Alley on the Greenwich Village/SoHo border, ” …an oasis … perfect in every way….” he later recalled, and where he regularly states he was at his most creative. And where in 1943 he began translating his “yearning for a brighter world” into reality, developing what would become his Lunar collection, a series of abstracted objects formed from magnesite and with integrated light sources,
While the Lunars are to be understood as works of art, Christmas 1943 saw Noguchi present his sister, the dancer Ailes Gilmour, with an object that was unquestionably design: a cylindrical lamp supported by three wooden legs.
Without being able to ask Isamu Noguchi directly, one can only guess at his motivations for gifting his sister such a lamp, even going so far as to suggest that she’d hinted she’d quite like a new lamp. And so he made her one.
However, when viewed in the wider context of Isamu Noguchi’s life and work it has a certain inevitability.
In his 1936 text “What’s the Matter with Sculpture?” Noguchi states what he considers to be the 4 problems, and his 4 solutions, before writing, “in conclusion, it is my opinion that sculptors as well as painters should not forever be concerned with pure art or meaningful art, but should inject their knowledge of form and matter into the everyday, usable designs of industry and commerce”6
One of several similar pronouncements by Noguchi throughout the 1930s and 40s and a position he advanced as much by deed as word: in 1932 Noguchi created his first consumer product, the so-called Hawkeye kitchen clock/timer, followed in 1937 by the Radio Nurse, in many regards the world’s first domestic baby monitor, or according to Friedrich von Borries the start of the surveillance state, and in 1939 a one-off table for MoMA New York President A. Conger Goodyear. One of several table designs realised by Noguchi in the course of the 1940s, the most popularly known being, inarguably, the eponymous Noguchi Coffee Table for Herman Miller.
And then at Poston came the desire to “free the dark world with akari”
In addition to starting his Lunar collection, 1943 also saw Noguchi create the sculpture Monument to Heroes, a work graphically described by Thomas B Hess, “here imprisoned in a paper cylinder, illuminated from inside, bones and curved forms project from slots and circles. It is a monument to despair and prison, a pyre of shattered fragments”7
The lamp he created for Ailes may have, one presumes, hopes, been devoid of the projecting bones and allusions to despair; however, sketching a conceptual line from Lunars to Monument to Heroes to Ailes’ lamps is irresistible.
Equally the next step.
Whereas Ailes’ lamp featured an aluminium cylinder8 Noguchi notes, “I made some variants for friends with plastic or paper.”9 In many regards more logical material: aluminium isn’t particularly translucent, a cylindrical aluminium lampshade being only of limited use. Paper and plastic being much more suited to the task. And also links in very nicely with Noguchi’s own fond memories of the Shoji paper walls from his childhood in Japan, or as he noted in 1950, “a window need not be merely a window. If you think of a window as a wall of light, then you can eliminate the conventional idea of a window and now it becomes a wall that is also a source of light”.10
With his cylindrical lamp you have that wall of light, a wall of light which eliminates the conventional idea of a lamp, you have a “sculpture in which the light source was integrally embedded”, a sculpture as “everyday, usable designs of industry and commerce” and for all an object in which you “no longer are conscious of it as a sculpture.”
Legend dictates that Hans Knoll saw the lamp and enquired about the possibility of producing it commercially, Noguchi agreed, and in 1947 Knoll Associates released the Model 9 Table Lamp by Isamu Noguchi. Adapted for industrial production the three stabs of the Knoll lamp are much simpler, devoid of the rounded end pieces of the 1943/44 original, and the PVC shade is reinforced with fibreglass to increase its durability, but perhaps the most important change is the size: the original version for Ailes stood some 93 cm high, and thus an object intended to be stood on the floor as an independent part of a room’s scenography, the Knoll version at just 40 cm is/was very much, as the name implies, a table lamp.
Knoll continued to produce the Noguchi lamp until 1954 when it was withdrawn on account of the number of plagiarisms, of both it and a later square version; arguably testament to the lamps appeal and success: plagiarists only rarely copy that which doesn’t sell. In addition, and without any evidence beyond a gut feeling, the fact that the first Akari were offered for sale in America in 1953 may have left the much simpler Model 9 looking a little less interesting. And so Knoll may have quietly removed themselves from the market. The bigger question of course is, why, being as they were the established Isamu Noguchi lamp producer, Knoll didn’t take on Akari?
While the Akari collection cannot be considered as a direct continuation of the Model 9 Table Lamp, Akari being very much of themselves, works deeply related to Noguchi’s visits to Japan in the early 1950s, his post-War considerations of his Japanese-American heritage, and for all the experience of visiting Hiroshima, and are crafted from Japanese Shoji paper rather than the more American fibreglass reinforced PVC, the backgrounds to both contain very similar considerations: considerations which first reached maturity in the Model 9 Table Lamp.
Examples of the Model 9 Table Lamp can regularly be found in auction house catalogues, and so as a work it not as lost lost as some of the objects featured in this series; however, against the background, or perhaps better put backlight, of the story of Akari, what has been lost is what this simple, unassuming, thoroughly charming lamp teaches us about Isamu Noguchi, his approach to and his understanding of his work. And when that is lost, the understanding of the Model 9 Table Lamp, and also the Akari, as works of sculpture is lost.
And Isamu Noguchi was, throughout his numerous lives and careers, always a sculptor.
4. Isamu Noguchi in conversation with Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art, Nov. 7 – Dec. 26 1973 https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-isamu-noguchi-11906 (accessed 09.04.2020)
8. We are unable to find an image of the aluminium lamp, and are thus a little unsure how it worked. The current situation not aiding our research. However the Noguchi Archive have an image of a 93 cm tall Three-Legged Cylinder Lamp with a PVC shade that originates from Ailes Gilmour Spinden, and which presumably is one of the plastic versions mentioned. And which shows the rounded ends of the legs/supports