Designer + Sculptor (1904-1988)
ISAMU NOGUCHI (1904-1988) was an American-Japanese designer who originally trained as a sculptor and brought a sculptural sensibility to everything he created: lighting, furniture, gardens and stage sets.
At a time when it’s commonplace to talk of the blurring of boundaries between cultural disciplines and of designers acting out the roles of artists, artisans and technologists, or vice versa; it’s hard to appreciate quite how radical Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) must have seemed when he combined those roles back in the early 1930s.
If Noguchi had to be described as being any one thing it would have to be as a sculptor. He studied sculpture after dropping out of medical school in late 1920s New York and then in Paris as an assistant to Constantin Brancusi. For the rest of his life, Noguchi applied his sculptural sensibility to everything he created: from his mulberry paper Akari lights and Martha Graham’s dance sets, to the mass-manufactured Zenith Radio Nurse and the stone gardens he landscaped at UNESCO’s Paris headquarters and Lever House in New York.
The blurring of boundaries in Isamu Noguchi’s work mirrored his personal history: a fusion of his Japanese father’s Asian heritage and the American modernity of his Californian mother. His parents met after his father, the Japanese poet Yonejiró (Yone, for short) Noguchi, arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1900s at a time when it was fashionable for Japanese intellectuals to live in the US. He placed a newspaper ad for a translator which was answered by a young writer, Leonie Gilmour. She became pregnant but, by the time of the birth, Yone was back in Japan.
Their son, Isamu, was born in Los Angeles in 1904 and lived there with his mother for two years until she took him to join Yone in Tokyo. Once besotted by the West, Yone now loathed it and was far from sanguine at the arrival of his American lover and their illegitimate son. Soon they split up, and Leonie moved from Tokyo to the seaside town of Õmori. At the age of 14, Isamu was sent back to the US to enrol at an international school in Indiana. He graduated from high school as ‘Sam Gilmour’ and won a place to study medicine at Columbia University.
Once at Columbia, he realised that his future lay in sculpture. He dropped out of medical school and renamed himself Isamu Noguchi. Three years later, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Paris, where he assisted Brancusi. After a brief return to New York in 1929, Isamu set off on his travels again to Paris, then Beijing and, finally, Tokyo, for what he hoped would be a happy reunion with Yone.
Fiercely nationalist and still ambivalent about his half-American son, Yone was barely courteous, but he did introduce Isamu to fellow writers and artists. Isamu sought solace in Kyoto, where he became enthralled by the exquisite simplicity of the ancient Buddhist rock gardens. Although he would continue to travel to Japan and eventually married a Japanese woman (the movie star, Yamaguchi Yoshiko) Noguchi lost his illusions about ever being accepted there. Years later he wrote of the Chinese-American artist, Li-Lan, that: “in the same way as I do she belongs to that increasing number of not exactly belonging people”.
Far from being squashed by “not exactly belonging”, Noguchi made the most of it. Back in New York in the mid-1930s, he discovered the social cachet of being a charming, cultured, rather exotic Japanese-American. His sculpture was commissioned by wealthy collectors and in 1935, he began a 30 year collaboration designing stage sets for the choreographer, Martha Graham. He then ventured into industry with the 1937 Zenith Night Nurse, an intercom in the elegant form of a Japanese mask.
When the US joined World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi campaigned to improve the lot of Japanese-Americans, many of whom were herded into detention camps. After the War, he contributed to the reconstruction of Japanese industry when the city of Gifu asked him to revive its stricken paper lantern industry. Noguchi moved there with Yamaguchi, whom he had met and married in 1950. They lived in a traditional wooden house and he developed new designs which harnessed the ancient skills of the Gifu lantern-makers to produce modern electrified versions of traditional cande-lit lanterns. Beautifully shaped and capable of folding perfectly flat, his Akari light sculptures are still made by hand in Gifu today from the mino-gami paper that comes from the bark of mulberry trees.
Noguchi continued to design new Akari lights throughout the 1950s and 1960s: alongside the popular “organic” furniture he made in curvily sculpted wood for American manufacturers such as Knoll and Herman Miller. He was equally prolific as a landscape architect. After creating a memorial garden to his father at Keiõ University in 1950, Noguchi was invited by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange to design a (sadly unbuilt) memorial to the victims of the atom bomb in Hiroshima Peace Park. Over the next decade, he recreated the ancient Buddhist stone gardens he had loved in Kyoto at Lever House in New York (1951), UNESCO in Paris (1951), the Yale campus (1960) and Jerusalem’s Israel Museum (1960).
Back in New York, Noguchi designed a garden of his own around his home and studio on a disused industrial lot on Long Island City in Queens, which eventually opened to the public in 1985 as the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. He built another home and studio on Shikoku, Japan’s most deserted island. From his two bases, Isamu Noguchi continued to fuse his mixed heritage in life and work until his death in 1988. As the writer, Ian Buruma, once noted this fusion “was not a matter of superficial ressemblances to traditional styles: it was in the spirit of his work: artisanal, utilitarian, and always in search of simplicity.”
1904 Born in Los Angeles to Leonie Gilmour, a US writer. His father, the Japanese poet, Yonejiró (Yone) Noguchi, has already returned to Tokyo.
1906 Taken to Japan by his mother to join Yone. Over the next 12 years, they live in Tokyo, the seaside towns of Õmori and Chigasaki, then Yokohama.
1918 Sent back to the US to study in Indiana. Four years later, graduates from high school (as Sam Gilmour) and enrols at Columbia University.
1924 Leaves Columbia to concentrate on sculpture as Isamu Noguchi.
1927 Wins a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Paris, where he assists the sculptor, Constantin Brancusi.
1929 Returns to New York where he befriends Richard Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham.
1930 Two year trip to Paris, Beijing and back to Japan.
1935 First stage design for Martha Graham. Their collaboration continues for 30 years.
1937 Designs first mass-manufactured product, the Zenith Radio Nurse intercom.
1941 After the Pearl Harbour attack, Noguchi campaigns to improve the lot of Japanese-Americans.
1950 Returns to Japan where he designs a memorial garden dedicated to his father at Keiõ University. Back in New York, Noguchi meets his future wife, the Japanese movie star, Yamaguchi Yoshiko.
1951 Invited to Gifu in Japan to create modern design for local paper lantern makers. Back in the US, he designs a garden for Lever House in New York as his first collaboration with Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore Owings Merrill.
1956 Begins work on stone garden for UNESCO in Paris.
1960 Creates gardens at Yale and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
1961 Converts a factory on Long Island City, Queens into a home and studio. He extends the site over the years to create the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum.
1968 Retrospective at the Whitney Museum, New York. Publishes his autobiography, A Sculptor’s World. For the next 20 years until his death, Noguchi continues to execute large-scale sculptures and sculptural gardens.
1985 Opening of the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum on Long Island City.
1988 Isamu Noguchi dies in New York.