Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was profoundly in sync with America’s mid-century obsession with the power of design to shape the modern world. Dual exhibitions The Sculptor and the Ashtray and Composition for Idlewild Airport testify to his interest in making sculpture everywhere out of everything.
The Sculptor and the Ashtray was inspired by an unpublished article written around 1944 by Mary Mix (Foley), an architecture and design writer who worked with George Nelson, then an editor at Architectural Forum and Fortune. It chronicles Noguchi’s efforts to design the perfect ashtray. Mix noted that this “commonplace gadget” was made and used across the full spectrum of material culture, from tacky novelty items and marketing swag designed by unknown “hacks” to solid-gold objets d’art conceived by the great artisans of the day for the coffee tables of monarchs.