The very table that cemented his status as a breakout 20th-century designer was almost lost to theft. Isamu Noguchi himself nearly ended up a doctor, but in 1922, he dropped out of Columbia pre-med to pursue sculpture full time. The decision quickly paid off. Just a few years later, he received a Guggenheim fellowship, despite being three years below the minimum age requirement.
Noguchi traveled extensively though Europe and Asia, had an affair with Frida Kahlo, designed sets for famed choreographer Martha Graham, and honed his craft as a landscape architect. In 1942, he voluntarily left New York to inter himself with fellow Japanese Americans, hoping to teach arts and crafts classes to help improve conditions at the camps. His art supplies never arrived, and his design suggestions were ignored.
For voluntarily interring himself, Noguchi received small privileges not given to other prisoners. Months after arriving at the Arizona internment camp, Noguchi was flipping through a contraband magazine when he came across a design of his being advertised for sale by the furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. A few years prior, Robsjohn-Gibbings had asked Noguchi to submit mockups for a table, but Noguchi never heard back and figured his sculptural design had been rejected. Really, Robsjohn-Gibbings had stolen his idea and begun to mass-produce it.
The furious Noguchi sought a short-term furlough, packed up his car, and drove across the country. Once he left the internment camp, he never returned. Instead, he perfected his table design and began producing it for Herman Miller in 1947, getting revenge on Robsjohn-Gibbings, whose own table was made irrelevant by Noguchi’s improved design. Noguchi named the table after himself, lest anyone forget who’d designed it.
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