group of laterns hanging from ceiling

Isamu Noguchi: tuning into the material

Isamu Noguchi was an eclectic Mid-Century Modern designer: also a sculptor, architect, painter… and always keeping a sensitive relationship with nature and society. The Akari light sculptures, originally developed using traditional Japanese materials in 1951, are still in production today.


Born from an American mother and a Japanese father in Los Angeles, California, Noguchi lived in Japan until he relocated to Indiana at the age of thirteen. He took sculpture lessons in the Lower East Side of New York at night while studying pre-medicine at Columbia University, mentoring with the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon left to become an academic sculptor at the university. Noguchi was best known for sculpture, but he worked in many other media, including painting, ceramics, interior design, and architecture. His fountains graced many cities. Isamu Noguchi died in New York City on December 30, 1988.


Noguchi always remained deeply tuned to the material he was using while keeping a sensitive relationship with nature and society in every work. Noguchi seized this whenever he had the chance to venture into the mass production. This is evident in pieces like the Bakelite intercom – designed for the Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937, and the coffee table designed in 1047 for Herman Miller made. This design is still being produced today, like the Akari light sculptures that were originally developed using traditional Japanese materials in 1951. The style of Noguchi seems to suggest that nature and human beings interact with each other or their environment. In his pieces, Noguchi has always maintained a strong sensitivity for the quality of the material they were made of. His preference was for wood and stone in particular, and he had the talent to make use of these materials in a manner that displayed them to their fullest potential. Noguchi’s work was also richly influenced by European surrealism and abstraction. Also, his Asian experiences gave him a unique design ability for garden and courtyard landscaping. Noguchi created sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture, and set designs through a lifetime of artistic experimentation. His work, subtle and bold at the same time, traditional and modern, set a new standard for arts reintegration. Noguchi, an internationalist, spent his entire life traveling extensively. He explored the influence of large-scale public works in Mexico, earthy ceramics and peaceful gardens in Japan, delicate ink-brush techniques in China, and the pureness of marble in Italy. His work combined all these impressions, using a wide range of materials including stainless steel, marble, cast iron, balsa wood, bronze, aluminum plate, basalt, granite, and ice.


The famous coffee table designed for Herman Miller (1947) is one the most famous pieces by Naguchi. The simplicity of the table is unique: the table is made with just a single piece of wood (the supporting element) and a one single piece of transparent glass.

Sailko, Isamu noguchi per herman miller inc., tavolino in-50, 1945, CC BY 3.0
Sailko, Isamu Noguchi for Herman Miller inc., coffee table in-50, 1945, CC BY 3.0

Another series of iconic pieces by Isamu Naguchi are the Akari Lights and lanterns.

Isamu Noguchi Luminaire Lanterne Akari
THOR, Isamu Noguchi: Luminaire Lanterne Akari 10 A Musée des Arts Décoratifs Paris, CC BY 2.0

The sensuous sofa below was designed in 1950 also for Herman Miller.

Isamu Noguchi: sofa
Sailko, Isamu Noguchi per Herman miller furniture co., sofa, zeeland (MI) 1950, CC BY 3.0
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