Design Dictionary: Noguchi Table

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By Alex Ronan / Published by Dwell
The story behind the iconic table that almost wasn't.

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. 

Design Dictionary: Noguchi Table - Photo 1 of 6 -

Noguchi's table has been produced by Herman Miller since 1947.

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. 

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An early photo of the Noguchi table taken by Martin J. Schmidt.

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.

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Isamu Noguchi, pictured here in 1960 with his Akari floor lamps.

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.

Design Dictionary: Noguchi Table - Photo 4 of 6 - The Noguchi table, seen here in a Minneapolis home, has become a staple for modern design collectors.

The Noguchi table, seen here in a Minneapolis home, has become a staple for modern design collectors.

Design Dictionary: Noguchi Table - Photo 5 of 6 - In this L.A. home, the table is paired with a Stockholm Wool Rug from Ikea and the Neo Sectional Chaise Left by Niels Bendtsen from DWR.

In this L.A. home, the table is paired with a Stockholm Wool Rug from Ikea and the Neo Sectional Chaise Left by Niels Bendtsen from DWR.

Design Dictionary: Noguchi Table - Photo 6 of 6 - The table's distinctive curved wood base and glass top reveal a harmony that's characteristic of Noguchi's work.

The table's distinctive curved wood base and glass top reveal a harmony that's characteristic of Noguchi's work.