Isamu Noguchi wearing a suit, seated with his tri-tone Prismatic Table

The New Reality: Noguchi and Aluminum in the 1950s

By Evan Scott

The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum and Vitra are pleased to reintroduce Isamu Noguchi’s Prismatic Table in three new color variations, now available for sale worldwide. To coincide with the launch, from October 18 through November 5, 2023, The Noguchi Museum Shop presents The New Reality: Noguchi and Aluminum in the 1950s, an archival display highlighting the history of the aluminum table originally designed by Noguchi in 1957 and its lasting influence on his practice. In addition, a family program taking inspiration from the show, Open Studio: Prismatic Pattern, will be held on Saturday, October 21.


  • Isamu Noguchi, Template for Prismatic Table, 1957. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 06958.
    Gift of Nicholas J. Sands. Photo: Kevin Noble. ©INFGM / ARS

By the mid-1950s, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) had realized a number of industrial designs, including a baby monitor, kitchen clock, chess table, stools and tables in a cyclone form and in a rudder form, Akari light sculptures, and a coffee table consisting of a single piece of glass atop two cantilevered pieces of wood. 

He was well into his trajectory with materials such as stone and wood, and, industrially, had also worked with materials like paper, bamboo, Bakelite, glass, and steel in rod/wire form. But aluminum was a newer frontier for the artist, appearing prominently in only a handful of documented sculptures in the 1930s and 1940s, including the suspended sculpture Miss Expanding Universe (1932). He had worked with stainless steel more, notably casting News (1938–40), his bas-relief over the Associated Press Building in Manhattan, from nine tons of it.

Aligning with the tail end of Isamu Noguchi’s most productive period of realized industrial designs, interior design was well into its modern era, pushing sleek and inexpensive materials like aluminum to the forefront of the domestic realm. Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America)—founded in 18881 after co-discovering a new, cost-effective manufacturing method for the material—was in 1956 interested in continuing to transform the way the public saw aluminum, creating and substantially investing in a promotional program called Forecast, with advertising slogans such as “FORECAST: There’s a world of aluminum in the wonderful world of tomorrow… ”

Among the twenty architects and designers of the time tapped by Alcoa to create illustrations, spaces, and prototypes for the program were Herbert Bayer, Lester Beall, Austin Cox, Jay Doblin, Charles and Ray Eames, Garrett Eckbo, Alexander Girard, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Florence Knoll, Eliot Noyes, Paul McCobb, and Isamu Noguchi.

Advertisements for the Alcoa Forecast program
Advertisements for the Alcoa Forecast program.
From left: Modular Aluminum Shelter by Eliot Noyes, 1959. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_ALC_001_002.
Portable Oven by Greta Magnusson Grossman, 1959. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_ALC_001_004.
Shelving Unit by Alexander Girard, photo by Charles Eames, courtesy Eames Office.

For the project, Noguchi conceived of a side table composed of three folded pieces of aluminum fastened together to create a hexagonal top form that transitions directly into the three legs of the table. Noguchi was influenced partially by Alcoa’s pyramidal logo and, of his own admission, by friend and mentor R. Buckminster Fuller’s work with the natural strength of arranged geometric forms, which Fuller called Energetic-Synergetic2 geometry and made famous with his geodesic dome designs.

Six prototypes of Noguchi’s creation were commissioned in 1957, one with different folds and another with an anodized effect, but the final advertised version was formed of three pieces, each from a different color of enameled aluminum. He named it the Prismatic Table, a reference to both its tessellated geometric forms and the way that its variously colored elements could be combined to create an array of patterns.

Alcoa advertisement for the Prismatic Table; interior design feature on the Prismatic Table
From left: Advertisement for the Prismatic Table, 1957. “Designed for the Alcoa collection by Isamu Noguchi, photographed by Irving Penn.” Industrial Design, July 1957. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_JOU_2000_1957. “Little Gem for a Giant: Noguchi’s Prismatic Table for Alcoa.” Interiors 117, no. 4 (November 1957): 116-117. The Noguchi Museum Archives, B_JOU_0606_1957. © INFGM / ARS

A handful of color variations were produced: one was photographed as a modern take on a classical still life by Irving Penn for an advertisement in Industrial Design, July 1957 (the colors of this one perhaps enhanced artificially), and a group of five in a panoply of colors were featured in an article in a November 1957 issue of Interiors photographed by Harold Corsini. Noguchi was paid $2,500 (or about $28,000 in 2023 value, adjusting for inflation) by Alcoa to advertise the prototype.3

The Industrial Design advertisement read, “FORECAST: There’s a world of aluminum in the wonderful world of tomorrow… where you will style rooms to your whim of the moment… Using sectional aluminum furniture of myriad textures, colors, finishes and forms…in arrangements as endless as the patterns of a kaleidoscope.” The promotion of the table and other Alcoa Forecast works often represented this future-gazing tone of the time, but also, in a separate ad, skewed more practical, touting the table’s ability to stack, its modular design function, and inexpensive production cost ($13). 

At the conclusion of the Forecast program, Alcoa expressed an interest to Noguchi in facilitating a production run of the tables with a separate manufacturer4 but it was never realized, leaving the work in its prototype phase for nearly fifty years. However, for Noguchi the piece acted as a precursor to a burst of prolific experimentation with aluminum and its manufacturing techniques. 


Isamu Noguchi with works at Edison Price workshop, 1958–59. Photo: Jun Miki. The Noguchi Museum Archives, 03841. ©INFGM / ARS


By 1958, Noguchi’s social and professional network had already led him to Edison Price, possibly the most transformational American lighting designer of the 20th century, and his studio in Manhattan. Noguchi began working out of Price’s space, procuring large, flat sheets of aluminum from both Alcoa and Price, and experimenting with the folding and cutting of them. He worked after-hours with industrial tools at the unionized workshop, with Shoji Sadao, whom Noguchi met in 1955 and had quickly become one of his most valued confidants and collaborators. 

Often starting from small paper models, within months he became skilled enough to create large-scale aluminum works, like the dizzying, monumental Noh Musicians and numerous smaller examinations of cut and folded form. Similar to his interest in other materials such as stone and paper, he showed a curiosity in the limitations of the medium, like the cutting and folding of a single sheet of aluminum, and its relationship to the force of gravity. He would complete over twenty works out of aluminum by the close of the 1950s. 

Noguchi writes of this period in his 1968 autobiography A Sculptor’s World. Though his thoughts on materiality and technique could apply to his work on the Prismatic Table, he does not mention it, possibly because it never went into production. Instead, he frames his work with metal through a more poetic lens, basing it on his exploration of the differences between his Japanese and American experiences, the relationship of time and sculpture, and, more specifically, his work at Edison Price’s studio. Noguchi writes: 

1958. I had returned to New York after making the UNESCO gardens, with the usual mixture of elation and depression. Returning I was always struck by the contrasts of America, Japan, and the rest of the world; the difference in materiality, or should one say, the concepts of reality…

Sculpture in the traditional sense, is, by definition, something with built-in values of permanence, ‘forever beautiful,’ something of shape and material and that ‘defy time.’ But then there is the other reality of the evanescent new—that truth born of the moment…

Now back in New York after nearly two years of work on the UNESCO garden, I was acutely conscious of these disparities, and of the need to associate myself with the new reality, being born without me. After all, New York was my reality, the surroundings familiar, the materials available common to my living. It seemed absurd to me to be working with rocks and stones in New York, where walls of glass and steel are our horizon, and our landscape is that of boxes piled high in the air.

It is clear why so many sculptors have turned to the welding torch and the scrap heap. The effect of wreckage ties it to time continuity, welding reincarnates it as a creation. And yet, should not a new creation have its own unborrowed virtue? The new materials remake the world. We live in a tensile world of space. It is one of molecular structure and sub-atomic particles. It is the world of the airplane, of speed—my world. 

In this perplexed frame of mind I visited Edison Price, my friend who manufactures lighting equipment, and looking at his machine tools for the handling of light metals, considered the use of such means for sculpture. This would bring me in contact with that industrial apparatus which is the real America.

After some experiments, I asked the Aluminum Company of America to supply me with the necessary sheet aluminum and, thus armed, set to work. Shoji Sadao, who had been Buckminster Fuller’s assistant, became my invaluable helper. 

What I wanted was a timely and weightless way of expression. With Edison’s help we devised a way to bend the thin metal so that the corners came out sharp to give an appearance of solidity (besides giving stiffness to an otherwise too flimsy surface). By way of self-imposed limitation I insisted on deriving each sculpture from a single sheet of metal—a unity, I thought, was achieved thereby. We impose our own rules of value. I wanted to deny weight and substance.
Isamu Noguchi, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 35.

As his words suggest, Noguchi’s inspiration seemed rekindled by the deeper meaning of these materials and their inexorable ties to modernity and industrial process. Connecting metal to the United States poses a counterpoint to his interest in paper, which was most prominently realized in his Akari light sculptures. Noguchi writes about his feelings on that material and Japan in a 1977 essay draft: “White is the sign of purity, of birth, and of death in Japan. The use of paper, white, untreated handmade paper, is that of reverence. Folded and cut as streamers and hung from ropes it consecrates all places; shrines, venerable trees and rocks.”5 

As he often demonstrated throughout his career, he was a quick and devoted study of the craft. Shoji Sadao, who worked with both Fuller and Noguchi, writes in his 2011 book on the two men:

One hears in this observation an echo of Bucky’s [Buckminster Fuller] influence on Isamu of the significance of the industrial process. What intrigued Isamu in the shop were the large 4 x 8 foot sheets of aluminum that were used to make lighting fixture reflectors. He spoke to Edison about using his shop to fabricate aluminum sculptures and asked me to assist in making them. Isamu and I would work after shop hours since it was a union shop and non-union workers were not allowed to work on the premises. We worked from 4:30 to about 7:00 p.m., went out for supper at a nearby Horn and Hardart (familiarly known as the Automat), and finished working at about 11:00.

Isamu worked with the intensity and concentration that I had witnessed when I was with him in Japan at the UNESCO garden mock-up in Tokushima. He would spend the day in his studio and show up in the afternoon with a small cardboard model of the sculpture, which we would enlarge and transfer on to a 4 x 8 foot sheet ... Although Isamu had not worked previously with the equipment in the shop, I was always amazed by the creative improvisations he would devise to make a particular cut or a difficult fold. We would leave our work in a corner of the shop and often in the morning the shop foreman would wonder aloud to Edison who were the master craftsmen who had made such complicated folds and shapes. Though hard to fathom now, in conservative 1958 when Isamu approached his gallery, the Stable Gallery, about an exhibition of these works, owner Eleanor Ward refused on the grounds that aluminum was a commercial material and to show them would damage his reputation.
Shoji Sadao, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum / 5 Continents Editions, 2011).

(This was not the first or last time that a confidant like Ward would doubt Noguchi’s choice of project or materiality. His traditionally-crafted bamboo and washi paper Akari light sculptures were questioned even near the end of Noguchi’s career, when he showed them as part of his representation of the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1986. This tension between labels like designer and artist, commercialism and “fine art,” existed both from external sources and from within Noguchi himself, and evolved over time. Compare, for example, Noguchi’s opening lines in the letter below from 1958, with his statements during a lecture at MoMA in 1977, where he deemed terms like “design” and “sculpture” were meaningless and interchangeable.)6

During this period, Noguchi penned a letter dated October 8, 1958, responding to an inquiry by a Mr. Gilbert (possibly the toymaker A.C. Gilbert) regarding the use of aluminum in industrial manufacturing, shedding some light on the origin of the Prismatic design and his decision to not pursue production of the Prismatic Table after the Alcoa program, despite interest from manufacturers: a mixture of shifting inspiration with a touch of resentment towards an unrealized design (a single stem stool), a fellow designer with a similar work (Saarinen, and his Tulip series), and a design company (Knoll):

First of all, I am a sculptor that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be and not ‘a major explorer in the field of low cost furniture design’. It is only as a side issue that I once designed a coffee table which may be said to have been revolutionary only in that I simply applied certain principals [sic] of sculpture in which I was interested at the time (1943). It was taken on by Herman Miller and sold well (not cheaply) to everyone’s surprise. Naturally, I was tempted to try my hand again as a result but without marked success so I avoided doing anything with furniture until three years ago when I happened to think of two ideas I thought worth trying: one, a stressed skin single stem stool, the other a skin formed table (without legs) interchangeable parts.

The first of these was taken up by Knoll under contract but instead of making it of stressed skin they insisted that I should first devise a way of making it of wire - they never got around to making the stressed skin design, as agreed upon, which I had visualized in spun or swedged aluminum. I was surprised and distressed to see them come out with a very similar design by Saarinen.

This left me with the skin formed table which the Aluminum Company of America so kindly undertook to use as an advertisement. Actually the Knolls were also interested in this design and we made some investigations together to find some suitable material to make it out of. One of them was enamelled [sic] aluminum—a baked glaze.

Indeed, I believe the point I would like to make is that in looking for an ideal material (to take the place of the paper with which I first made the studies), without predilection for one or another medium, one invariably turns to aluminum and it is most often found to be the best. Where, as in this case, I was looking for a clear and strong coloured finish. The new surfacings available with aluminum supplied the answer.

May I add that the shape of the table derives from the fact that sheet material when bent or folded derives lateral strength and that folded edges may be jointed together, and that three adjoining angles may even form a homogeneous plane. These simple truths are also evident in your illustrations of the sun house and the packaging units. My own interest in such matters derives in part from my long association with Mr. Buckminster Fuller.

There has apparently been a certain amount of interest in manufacturing the table. However, as I have explained, I am rather too disenchanted by the subject of furniture to want to spend any of my time in cooperative investigation toward its realization without full-proof guarantee.

Is there anything that you can glean from this rather morose letter that can serve your purpose? I will appreciate your putting whatever in a better word arrangement and proper spelling.

With regrets at having caused you difficulties,

Very cordially, Isamu Noguchi
Isamu Noguchi, letter to “Mr. Gilbert,” October 8, 1958. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_055_006

Nearly fifty years later, in 2002, Vitra Design Museum, working with the Isamu Noguchi Foundation Inc. (now The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum), breathed life back into the Prismatic Table with a production run in all-white and all-black editions, along with runs for his rocking stools, teacups and saucers, silverware, and Freeform sofa and ottoman. The reintroduction of the works coincided with a major exhibition organized by Vitra Design Museum, Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design.

The 2023 Vitra edition of Prismatic Tables more closely reflects the tri-color versions of Noguchi’s design first advertised by Alcoa. Each of the three tables contains its own set of three monochromatic hues, ranging from white to black.

Interviewed even later in his life, in 1973 by Paul Cummings,7 Noguchi’s connection to the Prismatic Table, and this period exploring aluminum, again appears inextricable from his sense of American-ness. There is a matter-of-fact aspect to his approach to material and industrial design as an industry that proposes a counterpoint to the perception of many of his other works of art as organic and connected to nature, elements which, to him, spoke to the character of Japan and his childhood there.8

PC: How did you begin designing the lanterns and the furniture?

IN: I thought it was an honorable way of making a living, and I needed money also. It’s part of the same motivation. You know the American idea—every American is an inventor, in a sense. After all, that’s how America was made, by invention—a screwdriver, a gear, or what-have-you…. I think materials limit you to that which you can do best. When you run out of the means that a certain material allows you and you want an effect that that material will not allow you, then you have to go on to another material. As a sculptor I always try to expand the possibility of sculpture.

That the industrially made metal tables are now available at the Museum Shop, beneath Noguchi’s traditionally crafted Akari light sculptures and adjacent to the sculpture garden he conceived twenty-five years later, speaks to this restless expansiveness of his practice.

This digital feature accompanies The New Reality: Noguchi and Aluminum in the 1950s, an archival display in The Noguchi Museum Shop, on view October 18–November 5, 2023. 

Evan Scott is Manager of Retail and Merchandising at The Noguchi Museum, and organizer of the presentation. 

The new Prismatic Tables by Vitra will be available for order online ( and for purchase in-store in the Museum Shop beginning on Wednesday, October 18. 

Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to


2 R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking (Macmillan Publishers, 1975/79).

3 Letter to Isamu Noguchi from Charles Lieb, November 1, 1956. The Noguchi Museum Archives, LBD_50S_057_006.

4 Letter to Bernard Bergstein from Charles Lieb, May 13, 1958. The Noguchi Museum Archives, LBD_50S_083_006

5 Isamu Noguchi, Drafts of “On Washi,” June 13, 1977. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_WRI_045_002.

6 Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design (Vitra Design Museum, 2022).

7 Oral history interview with Isamu Noguchi, November 7–December 26, 1973. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution [Transcript]. A somewhat condensed version from Paul Cummings, Artists in their Own Words: Interviews by Paul Cummings (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979); reprinted in Diane Apostolos-Cappadona and Bruce Altshuler, eds., Isamu Noguchi: Essays and Conversations (Harry N. Abrams/The Isamu Noguchi Foundation, Inc., 1994), 138.

8 Ibid., 130.