The Story of the Noguchi Table That Almost Wasn’t

Before Isamu Noguchi created the classic 20th-century furniture item, the Japanese American sculptor was imprisoned at an internment camp. While there, his design was ripped off by a colleague.
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The very table that cemented Isamu Noguchi’s status as a breakout 20th-century designer was almost lost to theft. The influential Japanese American artist himself nearly ended up a doctor, but in 1922, he dropped out of Columbia premed to pursue sculpture full time. The decision quickly paid off: Just a few years later, he received a coveted Guggenheim fellowship despite being three years below the minimum age requirement. 

In the late ’20s through ’30s, Noguchi traveled extensively though Europe, Mexico, and Asia. He had a brief affair with Frida Kahlo, honed his craft as a landscape architect, and designed elaborate sets for famed dancer-choreographer Martha Graham (who went on to become a longtime collaborator). In 1942, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which forcibly relocated and incarcerated thousands of Japanese Americans on the West Coast at internment camps, Noguchi went to Washington, D.C. to lobby for civil rights for Japanese Americans. He met John Collier, the commissioner of Bureau of Indian Affairs appointed by Roosevelt, who invited Noguchi to come live in a new camp being built on an Arizona reservation and teach arts and crafts, and help improve infrastructure conditions. Once there, however, Noguchi’s art supplies never arrived, and his design suggestions were ignored. 

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

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

For voluntarily interning himself, Noguchi received small privileges not given to other internment camp prisoners, among them, having outside magazines and newspapers delivered to him. Months after arriving at the camp, Noguchi was flipping through a contraband magazine when he came across a variation of one of his designs being advertised for sale by British furniture designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. A few years prior, Robsjohn-Gibbings had asked Noguchi to submit mock-ups for a table, but Noguchi never heard back and figured his design had been rejected. Really, Robsjohn-Gibbings had stolen his idea and begun to mass-produce it.

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

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

Furious, Noguchi applied to be released from the camp, arguing that since he had voluntarily interned himself, he could leave at any time. At first, he was denied by camp officials, but after he wrote to Collier directly, he was granted a short-term furlough, and later a permanent leave. 

Noguchi left the internment camp in November 1942 and got to work perfecting his design for the table that Robsjohn-Gibbings had ripped off. (The artist once said: "In revenge, I made my own variant of my own table.") In 1948, Herman Miller released the curved, wood-and-glass table. Noguchi named the now classic piece of furniture after himself, lest anyone forget who’d designed it.

Top photo courtesy of Herman Miller

Related Reading:

The Black Designers Who Were Largely Overlooked by History

With More Than 40,000 Objects, the New Eames Institute Will Show Much More Than Just Chairs

Alex Ronan
Alex Ronan is a writer in New York. She's covered design for Lonny, Domaine, and Luxe. She's contributed to New York magazine, blogged for Lena Dunham's #NotThatKindOfTour, and writes regularly for the Cut.


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