Coffee table designer and voluntary internee.
He won the Guggenheim Fellowship and studied under Constantin Brancusi. He designed dance sets for Martha Graham and George Balanchine. He had an affair with Frida Kahlo. He designed gardens for UNESCO and sculptures for Wall Street. He called Buckminster Fuller, futurist and scientist, his best bud and one time model. And, with the Herman Miller Noguchi Table, he invented the coffee table.
Isamu Noguchi has an impressive highlight reel. But half-Japanese, he had to battle prejudice and racism in 20th century America. World War II and the post-war period was not a fun time to Japanese, or black, or a woman, or really anything but a white man. Still Noguchi embraced his joint heritage and produced some of the most iconic works of art of his day. He may not have looked all-American, but his designs have shaped the way America looks.
Growing up Japanese-American not only helped forge his lauded “east-west” aesthetic, but also made Noguchi sensitive to racial strife in mid-century America. During the 50s the NAACP asked Noguchi to create a piece to support their campaign against lynching. He produced the sculpture Death (Lynched Figure). In a testament to the sad state of American race relations, a critic labeled it “a little Japanese mistake.”
Perhaps Isamu Noguchi’s most lasting legacy came during WWII. As Japanese Americans were rounded up and shipped off to internment camps in the desert, Noguchi decided to go to the camps for himself. As a well known artist he thought he might secure funds to redesign the quarters or put in baseball field. But, once in the desert he realized the camps for the thinly veiled prisons they were. No one let him build a baseball field. He was detained there for 7 months.
From the camp he wrote “This is America, the nation of all nationalities. For us to fall into the Facist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.” Noguchi’s artwork is testament to this very personality and strength, a important reminder of the power of multicultural America.
Above is the Herman Mailler Noguchi Table designed by Isamu Noguchi. You can have one of your very own for a mere $1,700.