Spotlight on Isamu Noguchi’s Innovative and Iconic Paper Lanterns

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By Amanda Dameron
Akari, the massively popular collection of paper lanterns by Isamu Noguchi, is a bridge between age-old craft and modern innovation.

For Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988), using washi, or paper, was a way to sculpt with light. 

Noguchi had powerful memories of washi from a childhood spent in Japan, and he never forgot the lure of the material. During a 1950 trip to Gifu, Japan, a prefectural capital known for its mastery of paper techniques, the mayor asked for Noguchi’s advice on how the area could modernize. 

"This is what comes from old tradition, the use of washi and the making of lanterns, which extends its life into the needs of our time." Isamu Noguchi

"It was a logical convergence of my long interest in light sculptures, lunars, and my being in Japan," Noguchi wrote in his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World. "Paper and bamboo fitted in with my feeling for the quality and sensibility of light. Its very lightness questions materiality, and is consonant with our appreciation today of the less thingness of things, the less encumbered perceptions." 

Spotlight on Isamu Noguchi’s Innovative and Iconic Paper Lanterns - Photo 1 of 1 - Isamu Noguchi designed more than 200 Akari lanterns, all of which are still handmade at the same family-owned factory in Gifu, Japan. 

Isamu Noguchi designed more than 200 Akari lanterns, all of which are still handmade at the same family-owned factory in Gifu, Japan. 

Calling the collection Akari, or "light" in Japanese, was a brilliant marketing move. "It’s a perfectly ambiguous word that can be interpreted in many ways," says Dakin Hart, senior curator of The Noguchi Museum in Queens, which will launch a special exhibition of Akari in 2018. "It was a chance for him to own a basic idea." 

Noguchi spent the rest of his life creating more than 200 versions of the lamp. The forms’ simplicity is deceptive, and knockoffs are ubiquitous. "If it looks perfect, you can be sure it isn’t authentic," explains Hart. "The bamboo ribs are hand-tied and the tie spots are offset, staggered. One can see the bump because it’s fatter than just the ribbing. They are imprecise and imperfect, intended as a small representation of nature in your home."

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