By Matthew Kirsch
- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
By Matthew Kirsch
…Akari has its rationale in being in relation to people … I was told early on that all a young couple needed in starting life together was a ‘futon’ and an Akari above—a pad and a light, that is, not only just light, but the Akari light which is a difference because it has a shape, a sense of being which is more than merely lighting a room, it is lighting itself, that is, the paper of which the Akari is made becomes luminous as a result of the light inside, on its surface, however distant the light may be from the light bulb, it all becomes a luminous surface.1
En route to Hiroshima in the spring of 1951, Noguchi arrived in the town of Gifu to witness a night of cormorant fishing at a festival along the Nagara River, illuminated by paper lanterns and braziers mounted on each boat. These lanterns, called chochin, are handmade in Gifu, utilizing a high-quality paper produced from mulberry bark. Once Japan’s dominant producer, Gifu’s lantern industry had been diluted by the widespread production of cheap examples in Japan and abroad, even before Japan’s involvement in World War II left it stagnant. During his visit, Noguchi observed that Gifu’s paper lanterns existed mostly as decorations or as a medium for advertisements. The mayor of Gifu, to whom Noguchi was introduced, appealed to him to help revitalize the lantern industry and offered him a commission. Noguchi created two ideas for lanterns the following day. A short article in the local newspaper described these prototypes as “deformed.” Noguchi also decided to substitute an incandescent lightbulb for the traditional candle, instantly making them modern.
He adopted the term Akari, a Japanese word meaning ‘light,’ with associations to both illumination and weightlessness. Having conceptualized Akari as a form of sculpture from the very beginning, Noguchi emphasized an aspect that traditional chochin fabricators took for granted—the collapsible construction of these lanterns—which meant that his sculpture could be stored and shipped flat, packaged in an envelope or shallow box until unpacked and installed in a home. This play between material and immaterial was a central feature in Noguchi’s conception. As part of the marketing for Akari, Noguchi came up with a logo that combined a stylized sun and crescent moon like the Japanese ideograph it is based on (明). The ideograph became synonymous with Akari, featured on the early envelopes and packaging and in the form of a red stamp at the base of each lantern.
Noguchi entered into a partnership with Gifu’s Ozeki Jishichi Shoten (later Ozeki & Co., Ltd.), founded in 1891 and one of the industry survivors. Ozeki would oversee the construction of wooden molds that Akari would be handbuilt on, both for stringing their bamboo ribbing and adhering strips of washi paper. With the help of a small group of friends, including his half-brother Michio, film producer Kiichi Ichikawa, printmaker Ansei Uchima, and sculptor Tsutomu Hiroi, Noguchi set up a Tokyo office and showroom for Akari and Associates. Meanwhile Noguchi showcased Akari at a major exhibition of his recent ceramics and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art Kamakura in 1952, and later at a gallery at the offices of the literary magazine Chuo Koron in 1954.
Noguchi had made incremental steps toward light sculpture in the preceding decades. A prototype of an aural experiment for creating tones from wind, Musical Weathervane from 1933, was meant to glow when activated (although it’s uncertain that this was actually achieved). After working with variations of the material magnesite (an industrial plaster with enhanced density) in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Noguchi created larger interior environments with the medium for several commissions: ceiling landscapes for the Time Life information center at Rockefeller Center in New York, the lobby at the American Stove Company in St. Louis, and for Lunar Voyage, a stairwell wall in an ocean liner operating between New York and South America, the S.S. Argentina. For each he concealed colored light elements within hollows and channels, and used reflected light from exterior sources for raking light on their surfaces. He gave the catchall designation “Lunars” to these experiments and applied them to studio sculpture as well, of which a handful of objects survive. However, dissatisfied with the effects of reflected light, Noguchi would toy with more conventional means. He created a cylinder polyvinyl shade wound around three upright mahogany posts as a gift for his sister Ailes in the mid-1940s, which would serve as a prototype for a model put into production by Knoll Associates soon after.
Encountering a living paper lantern tradition in Gifu dovetailed nicely with his greater ambitions. Throughout 1949-50, Noguchi had travelled on a Bollingen Foundation fellowship to study the role of sculpture in the public sphere throughout the ages, travelling to France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, Sumatra, and Japan. His already expanded definition of sculpture meant that he looked not only at religious and civic sculpture but also at public spaces, fountains, architectural follies, and local handcrafts. In his correspondence with his accountant in New York, Noguchi mentioned purchasing toys at stops along the way, with the thought of coming up with something of his own that might be a marketable handcraft. With the chochin format, Noguchi could experiment with something he saw as egalitarian, “to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living.”2 He would later refer to Akari as “elegant people’s art.”3
To give a sense of Noguchi’s engagement with the Akari project, between his first prototypes in the spring of 1951 and his Chuo Koron exhibition in August 1954, Noguchi had developed nearly thirty different models. Some were variations in size based on a particular shape. Early models, such as the 7A, retained the wooden rim, or wa, of traditional chochin and occasionally incorporated polychromatic designs on the paper’s surface. (By adding color and script, Noguchi responded to the Japanese cultural association of white lamps with death and veneration.) The washi paper itself probably held the greatest appeal for Noguchi: its strength and durability enabled him to experiment with plasticity in his shapes. He also alternated between a more traditional and regularly spaced ribbing and the “random wound” spiraled ribbing which exposed larger surface areas of paper. Its organic density created a mysterious and irregular effect, reflecting just as much light within the interior of the lamp as it allowed to escape, a luminous quality he’d searched for. By the 1960s he experimented with models that did away with ribbing altogether, placing the emphasis on washi that draped over wire armatures. Even the idea of the slow degradation of washi, taking on a wrinkled character as an Akari was inevitably collapsed and re-installed, was a feature which Noguchi sought.
Noguchi’s commitment to the Akari project was not limited to dreaming up new shapes for the lanterns. He quickly recognized that its success would be founded on legitimizing his designs in the face of imitations so he registered for patents in both Japan and the United States. These patents reflected his continued effort in streamlining the stretchers, harps and hardware related to the lanterns, rather than the washi paper-based shapes themselves. Akari distinguished themselves from lantern tradition by both their simple and unadorned metal armatures and their variety of orientations, straying from a customary hanging format. In the early 1960s, Noguchi introduced metal, single-stem stands for certain lanterns, offering another option for models that had initially appeared as hanging Akari. Likewise, for the ambitious columnar shades from this period, such as models J1, 35N and 36N, he briefly experimented with fluorescent tubes incorporated into the stands to alleviate the problem of hot spots that occurred when multiple incandescent light bulbs were used.5 By the mid-1960s, Noguchi offered bamboo stands (BB) that are threaded into heavy, cast-iron stems. The “UF” (unit-based frame) stands appeared in the 1980s, with longer, splayed legs to elevate large shades higher from the ground; these frames featured a central plate that housed the socket and the legs, making the frame less integral to keeping the shades stretched.
Noguchi came to fully understand the challenge posed by imitations when he set about finding a U.S. distributor in the 1950s. Import and shipping costs, as well as recouping material and labor costs, meant that retail prices of Akari would appear inflated compared to available pseudo-lanterns. Nonetheless, through trial and error, Noguchi was able to place Akari with notable merchandisers like Bonniers (1953), and later Bloomingdales in New York (1969). Akari enjoyed some visibility in design magazines and popular media from the early 1950s, beginning with regular appearances in Arts & Architecture and Interiors. From their inception Noguchi sought European distribution for Akari, sensing their alignment with the principles of the international analog to America’s ‘Good Design’ movement. In the 1960s and ‘70s he would enter into distribution agreements with Wohnbedarf (in Zurich and Basel), Steph Simon (Paris), and Martinelli Luce (Lucca, Italy) and Akari were shown alongside European designers in their showrooms.
By the late 1960s, as Noguchi’s career and travels diverted the dedication required to keep the venture running, he delegated its operations to his de facto manager and publicist, Priscilla Morgan, and his friend and collaborating architect, Shoji Sadao in the United States; and his half-brother, Michio, in Japan. He continued to pass through Gifu on most trips through Japan, adding new variations to the catalogue—over 100 in total—until his death in 1988. Distribution in the United States was folded into the Isamu Noguchi Foundation in the 1990s.
In the last decade of his life Noguchi staged two exhibitions, each in collaboration with the architect Arata Isozaki, that served as a recapitulation of his firm belief that the long-term Akari project existed on equal footing with his sculpture and gardens. For an exhibition at the Yurakucho Cultural Forum in Tokyo, he and Isozaki positioned Akari at the center of each installation—in one instance, quite literally, with an Akari propped directly on top of the basalt sculpture, Lap. Isozaki was given free rein to place Noguchi’s sculptures in inspired settings, composed of zinc-alloy chain link, wood beams, and a wall painted with the checkerboard pattern of the shokintei at Katsura Imperial Villa, at Kyoto. In this arrangement, Akari become the aesthetic keystone of Noguchi’s material culture. The following year, in preparation for his selection as the United States’ representative at the 1986 Venice Biennale, Noguchi seemed to take the success of the Space of Akari and Stone experiment as a model for his moment in the spotlight. Against the advice of selecting curators Alana Heiss and Henry Geldzhaler and various friends and peers, Noguchi again chose to put Akari at the heart of his installation. He designed thirteen new models, with the “VB” designation, for the occasion. He defended his decision by stating that in the three decades of his Akari experiment, it was perhaps the one chapter of his career that brought him joy. So ubiquitous are Akari—and the multitudes of their desanctified offspring in the Ikea age—that it is easy to forget their novelty. As Geldzhaler wrote, “Learning that Noguchi first designed the Akari over forty years ago creates a shock akin to the realization that a “folk” song was actually written by someone.”5
A substantive entry in Isamu Noguchi’s effort to cast his expanded definition of sculpture in the context of everyday life, Akari are arguably the purest distillation of Noguchi’s intent. Akari were an experiment for Noguchi, both as a means to confuse perceptions in the debate on functional and non-functional and fine and applied arts, and to lend added conceptual heft and a truer social complement to his later sculptural work. The fact that Akari remain in production some 30 years after his death is a measure of his vision: that some combination of their novelty, usefulness, the simplicity of their materials, or their inherent and unplaceable out-of-time quality has fulfilled the promise he saw in them.