10 Things You Need to Know About Isamu Noguchi

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By Alison Sinkewicz
On his birthday, we remember Japanese-American artist, designer, and activist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) for a legacy of profoundly imaginative, engaging work.

Beyond his work, which permeated our contemporary conceptions of what design is, Noguchi remains a profound influence on conceptual art and artistic activism. 

On the date of his birth, November 17, we remember Noguchi’s prolific and dynamic life’s work that went far beyond the coffee table.  

Constantin Brancusi was a major influence. 

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After seeing Constantin Brancusi’s work in 1926, Noguchi changed his artistic direction. Working as an academic sculptor, Noguchi left his practice to study at Brancusi’s studio in Paris. The French sculptor’s influence is profound; Brancusi’s pillars of abstraction and modernism are seen throughout the work in Noguchi’s career.  

He was the father of the modern coffee table. 

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In 1948, with the release of his Herman Miller coffee table, the artist became essentially the architect of the modern living room. The Noguchi Table is essential design: two curvy wood legs supporting a heavy glass top. In line with Noguchi’s design philosophy, the tables today are affordable and accessible: art for everyone.  

Playground design was part of his practice.

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Subverting our experience of space wasn’t just kept for grown-ups. In Noguchi’s world, children’s space was just as important to re-think and re-shape as the rest of urban life. Noguchi’s experimental and beautiful spaces present more opportunities for play than just a slide or a swing. Children can climb and explore Noguchi’s work in Sapporo, Japan, and Atlanta, Georgia.  

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He has museums in both New York and Japan. 

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Noguchi’s work has been preserved at both the Noguchi Museum in Queens, New York, as well as a mecca in the village of Mure on the Japanese island of Shikoku.  

He volunteered himself to a Japanese internment camp. 

After hearing of the attacks at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent signing of the Executive Order 9066 (which sent thousands of citizens of Japanese heritage to camps around America) Noguchi drove to Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona to volunteer his services to improve the lives of those interned. Hoping to establish an arts and crafts program and design infrastructure in the camps, Noguchi soon learned that there was no intention at the camp to have any such facilities. Instead, Noguchi found himself essentially imprisoned, missing his own solo exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1942. 

Later, Noguchi created haunting and sparse works that speak to the isolation and cruelty of internment.  

Dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was a frequent collaborator.

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Noguchi worked with groundbreaking dancer Martha Graham to design some of dance’s most elaborate and avant-garde stage designs. The pair first worked together for Graham’s solo show Frontier in 1935 and continued to work together on pieces such as Appalachian Spring and Cave of the Heart. Brass cages, curved horn headdresses, and other such cumbersome accessories have become the subject of many dancers’ ire. Yet for the audience, they are marvelous. 

He designed the first baby monitor. 

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In 1937 Noguchi designed the Radio Nurse for the Zenith Radio Corporation. A two-part set, the system was designed to have a kind of straight-forward aesthetic to mimic that of a dutiful nurse. While the design never became popular (it also picked up other frequencies), it is now regarded as the first of the technology.  

He created floating fountains for the 1970 Osaka Expo. 

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For the Osaka World Expo, Noguchi created fountains that doubled as visions of the future. Soaring above the ground, his floating fountains spoke to the developing technology of the 1970s and placed Japan directly at the center.  

Commercial design was important to Noguchi. 

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The artist, unlike many others then (and now), didn’t scoff at the opportunity to work within commercial and mainstream models. Commercial opportunities, such as designing furniture, were a chance to create work with functionality and purpose at the center of the piece.  

He was romantically involved with Frida Kahlo.

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During Noguchi's stay in Mexico City in 1936, he and Kahlo fell into a brief and passionate love affair until it was discovered by Kahlo's husband, Diego Rivera. The two remained friends for the rest of their lives.

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