The word icon is bandied around rather too readily, especially in design circles. But if there is one light that leaves one groping for a more appropriate noun it is the Akari. The lightweight, collapsible paper lantern – much
imitated, generally badly – is probably one of the most
recognised lights on the planet. ‘They have quietly
become among the most ubiquitous sculptures on
Earth,’ says New York’s Noguchi Museum.
Without weighing down such an airy object with too
much significance, Akari also brings together East and
West in its original simple, spherical form.
Its creator Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American artist
and designer, was extraordinarily versatile. Born in Los
Angeles in 1904, he was the illegitimate son of Yone
Noguchi, a Japanese poet, and Léonie Gilmour, an
American writer who edited much of Noguchi’s work.
He was a sculptor who also created stage sets (including
for Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, George
Balanchine and John Cage), and designed furniture,
lighting and interiors, as well as outdoor plazas and
gardens. In 1955, he designed the sets and costumes
for a controversial theatre production of King Lear
starring John Gielgud. In the 1960s, he worked on a
playground design with the architect Louis Kahn.
‘As a sculptor, his interest was not restricted to materials
and form, but extended to spatial effects and interior
designs,’ says one commentator for distributor Vitra.
‘Noguchi intended his art to serve both practical and
social functions, and his sculptural style exerted a lasting
influence on the idiom of organic design in the 1950s.’
Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of 13, when he
moved to Indiana. While studying pre-medicine at
Columbia University, he resumed his first interest in
becoming an artist, taking evening sculpture classes on
New York’s Lower East Side with the sculptor Onorio
Ruotolo. Having left university to become an academic
sculptor, his work profoundly changed when he saw a
Constantin Brancusi exhibition in New York in 1926.
He went to Paris with a John Simon Guggenheim
Fellowship, and from 1927 to 1929 worked in Brancusi’s
studio. Influenced by the older artist, Noguchi turned
more to modernism and abstraction.
He travelled extensively throughout his life (later
Isamu Noguchi working on Akari while Pritzker Prize-winner Kenzo
Tange (centre), Michio Noguchi and a friend look on (c1952)