Isamu Noguchi – Japanese furniture designer

Posted on 16th March 2011 in Furniture Designers, Japanese Designers

Freely expressing his creativity through the essence of clay, wood and stone, Isamu Noguchi was known as a highly prolific sculptor who was able to bridge the East and the West interjecting his own understanding of social awareness.

Born to Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet and Leonie Gilmour, an American writer who also edited much of Yone’s work on November 17, 1904 in Los Angeles, his young life was not settled with his parents moving to Japan and then separating in 1906. His father remarried while his mother sent him to Japanese and Jesuit schools. In 1918 his mother sent him to the United States to attend Interlaken School in Rolling Prairie, Indiana living with the family of a Swedenborgian minister.

While he attended this school he was informed by the director that he would never be a sculptor. Soon after, Noguchi left to enroll as a pre-medical student at Columbia University. Expressing his continued interest in sculpting and with his mother’s encouragement, he enrolled at the Leonard da Vinci Art School. This time his skill as a sculptor was recognized with the director going so far as to say that the new Michelangelo had appeared.

He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Paris and work for Brancusi. Here his work was simple and curvilinear incorporating irregular shapes that expressed the void. Learning respect for tools and a particular sensitivity for materials which he would continue throughout his artistic career, he learned how to “live for the moment” expressed through his art.

Continuously restless and striving for perfection in his work, he travelled back to New York making a living doing portrait busts which he would intermittently rely on in throughout his entire life as a way of supporting himself.  Here he met Buckminster Fuller with whom he collaborated on several projects including the modeling of Fuller’s Dymaxion car. His work, not always well understood or accepted, would be influenced by his own self-directed learning and constant travel between the East and the West. He would return to Paris again and then to Beijing where he studied calligraphy and brush drawing.

It was when he returned to Japan that he realized that land could be sculpted as well as a means to deal with and express social concerns. Mexico City hired him to produce a 20-meter-long History as Seen from Mexico in 1936 which featured a Nazi swastika, a hammer and a sickle.

Returning to New York in 1937, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he voluntarily lived in an internment camp on an Indian reservation in Poston, Arizona. His vision was to design parks and recreational areas within the camp however, when he realized that the WRA authorities had no intent of implementing them, he decided to leave to return to New York.

Here his work took an abstract, surrealist influence and created a series of biomorphic sculptures made of interlocking slabs. The power and the expression of essence captured the attention of Martha Graham, John Cage and Merce Cunningham; well known choreographers and music producers. Martha Graham particularly liked his raw sculptors because they were powerful and unadorned with meaningless decoration, similarly expressive of her dance.

In 1948, he applied for a Bollingen Fellowship to travel the world proposing to study public space as research for a book about the “environment of leisure”.

He died on December 30, 1988 at the age of 1984. He left behind a legacy of work that in his obituary in the New York Times called him “AS versatile and prolific sculptor whose earthy stones and meditative gardens bridging East and West have become landmarks on 20th-century art.” The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, originally funded by Noguchi himself, serves as Noguchi’s official Estate. Noguchi the furniture designer also has a modern coffee table his is famous for as well.

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