Isamu Noguchi by Louis Dahle-Wolfe (1955). Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents, all rights reserved.
The Noguchi table is right up there in the top five articles from the early mid-century modern period. We like to believe it is one of those items that has become even more famous than its designer, or equally as famous.
Isamu Noguchi, however, is not a person that you can afford to cast aside. He’s one of the most prolific mid-century designers that has ever lived. He pushed the artistic parts of mid-century modernism to an extent that had not been seen since the days of the Bauhaus.
Born in 1904, his designs are currently inhabiting museums and landmarks all over the world. He didn’t just create gorgeous pieces of furniture: he was also a landscaper, industrial designer, and sculptor. The famous Noguchi table from 1947 is considered another one of his sculptures by many people. Let’s look at some fun facts about the guy:
1. He was the son of a great Japanese-American poet
Yonejiro Noguchi is only famous today for literary connoisseurs, though some people might remember his story from the film Léonie (2010) about his relationship with Leonie Gilmour, lover and longtime editor. He’s actually played in the film by British actor Jan Milligan.
2. His first teacher said that he had no talent for sculpture
That man was none other than Gutzon Borglum, otherwise known as the artist behind Mount Rushmore. I love great American landmarks as much as the next person, but come on: we can all agree that Borglum was just plain wrong. Maybe he told him that on purpose? We’re thinking like J. K. Simmons does to the titular character on Whiplash, that kind of education.
The Noguchi table, as we mentioned before, works more as an actual sculpture than a coffee table most of the time —that kind of talent is hard to replicate. He was also famously dubbed as “the new Michelangelo” by another teacher while at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City, so I guess that’s O.K.
3. He designed the first electronic baby monitor
We told you he was more than just that guy behind that coffee table in your living room. The Zenith Radio Nurse from 1938 was a huge sensation and, logically, a much-needed breakthrough in childcare technology. He famously remarked that it was his “only strictly industrial design.” Every other product he designed was intimately tied to his aesthetic vision, which greatly differed from most other mid-century designers.
4. He was very good friends with Frida Kahlo
They were actually lovers, but we’re trying to keep this article safe for work. Noguchi and Kahlo had the same preoccupation for social matters, and the artist painted a whole mural alongside Diego Rivera and other artists in Mexico during the 1930s. He also sculpted a few pieces while south of the border, and famously stated that he didn’t feel like an outsider in Mexico. He felt that all artists there were “useful” and “a part of the community.”
5. He also made a bunch of very famous lamps
Noguchi created the Cylinder Lamp for the Knoll company in 1937 and later went on to build the Akari Light Sculptures Collection for Vitra in 1951. In our humble opinion, this is where his Japanese heritage really shines through the work (no pun intended). The Akari lamps and the Noguchi table are excellent examples of the Japanese practice of wabi-sabi: finding beauty in imperfect shapes.
6. His most famous table is not really named that way
Talking about the Noguchi table can be a little misleading. Noguchi created a wide variety of tables during his lifetime. The most famous one is actually named IN50, and it was its simplicity and beauty that made it stand out from the others: just a couple pieces of wood, carefully balancing each other, and a huge triangular glass plate with round edges and a thick edge.
7. He had an unmistakable connection to nature
Japanese artisanship is usually tied to the natural world in ways that the Western world wishes they could achieve. Isamu Noguchi drew from this natural tether to inspire himself and create pieces of art that were later considered “biomorphic.” This term gets thrown around a lot in the mid-century modern world, and it simply means that something is built after a natural design: an animal, plant, or any element of nature itself.
The Noguchi table is, of course, also a child of this aesthetic, but it isn’t the only one. This aspect of Noguchi’s work permeates every single object he ever finished.