Designer Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) traveled the world developing a style that borrowed from both rural craft traditions and the technologically focused urban planning and design community. His work consistently married these elements in a way that is innovative and often poetically contemplative. Noguchi's pieces run the gamut from the simple and unabashedly functional, like a 1937 Bakelite baby monitor for Zenith, to purely decorative pieces and abstract art. The bulk of his work, however, crosses these boundaries, seeming to be born of a sculptural desire to co-exist as fine art and as furniture.
Noguchi was born in Los Angeles but spent much of his childhood abroad, in India, Paris and, primarily, Japan where he was trained as a cabinetmaker. Over the course of his life he also lived in China, where he studied traditional brush painting, and in England. He went to school at Columbia in New York, and moved back to Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship in 1927. In Paris he worked in the studio of Constantin Brancusi and focused on his abstract sculptural work.
Back in New York Noguchi became interested in urban planning and, inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller, the importance of incorporating the rapidly evolving technological innovations into the production of his work. Throughout the thirties he proposed several radical ideas to the City Parks Foundation, like his "Play Mountain," a terraced mound of dirt and gardens the size of a city block. Although many of his ideas were rejected, he did create several successful public gardens, plazas and playgrounds. He also received a commission in 1938 to design a large relief for the Associated Press building in New York.
In the 1940s Noguchi produced several pieces of furniture for Knoll and Herman Miller that have since become modern classics. He designed a popular biomorphic coffee table for Herman Miller in 1945, which was supposedly a reclaimed variation on an earlier design of his that had been stolen by another company. In 1946 Herman Miller put out a sofa and ottoman with a fluid, organic shape derived from Noguchi's sculpture. Noguchi designed several three-legged tables of different sizes and matching stools (1949) supported by a wider, rudder leg in birch, accompanied by two metal legs. Knoll put out the "Rocking stool" in 1954 with criss-crossed metal framework between the base and seat.
Noguchi also worked extensively with lighting systems and developed a series called "Akari" that became especially popular. This group of lamps included standing, hanging and table versions, and had shades made from Japanese paper. Noguchi traveled to the town of Gifu in Japan to learn how the craftsmen made and worked with the traditional mulberry bark paper, and applied this knowledge to his lamps. He wrote that he believed "Akari to be a true development of an old tradition," and that "paper and bamboo fitted in with my feelings for the quality and sensibility of light."
In the 1980s he established the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York as a space to view a wide variety of his work. The Museum has traditional Japanese gardens as well as a collection of his sculpture and furniture.