By Evan Scott
- Isamu Noguchi
- Akari & Shop
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
(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):
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
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.
Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.