From the August/September 2018 Issue  

The Nature of Simplicity

Writer Ren Miller  |  Photographer Expandinglight5

The idea is simple and elegant: a piece of triangular plate glass with curving corners sits securely on two identically carved pieces of hardwood, one of them turned upside down and the two connected with a steel rod. The result: a modern masterpiece.

Angered when his design is copied, Isamu Noguchi retaliates by creating a new masterpiece of restraint and modern elegance.

Geometry meets nature in the Noguchi coffee table, a 1944 design that is as much sculpture as it is furniture. At its most basic, the table is a piece of glass on two wood supports. But with the deft touch of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, those components took on a beauty all their own. “Its surrealistic Modernism captured people’s imagination,” according to the Smithsonian’s book Great Design.

The table has its origins in one that Noguchi created in 1939 for A. Conger Goodyear, then-president of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Around the same time, British-American architect and interior designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings asked Noguchi to design a table for him also. Noguchi sent him a model based on the Goodyear table and later learned the designer had begun to sell a similar table on his own. Legend has it that when Noguchi complained, Robsjohn-Gibbings replied that “anyone could make a three-legged table.”

Incensed, Noguchi went on to design another variation of the table and worked with the Herman Miller furniture company to put it into production. The rest, as they say, is history. The table is still in production and remains a fresh-looking modern design.

The table base comprises two identical supports, origingally carved from solid walnut, into a flowing, organic shape. One part is turned upside-down and the two are connected by a cleverly concealed steel rod to create a stable base for the thick glass top. The top—originally 7⁄8-inch and now ¾-inch heavy plate glass—rests on the top without the need for connectors.

The table now is available in black, walnut, natural cherry and white ash, made by Herman Miller and available through Design Within Reach for $1,795 to $1,895.

Who is the artist behind the design? Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was born in Los Angeles to acclaimed Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and his paramour, Léonie Gilmour, an American writer who edited much of Yone’s work. His father returned to Japan before Isamu was born. Isamu, his mother and his half-sister, Ailes Gilmour (who grew up to be a pioneer in modern dance), at one point relocated to Japan to join Yone, but the poet had moved onto another relationship so Léonie and her children established their own household in Japan. At age 13, Isamu was sent to Indiana for schooling and took on the name Sam Gilmour.

After high school he worked as an apprentice to sculptor Gutzon Borglum, creator of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. At the time Borglum was working on Wars of America in Newark, an installation that includes 42 figures and two equestrian sculptures. Noguchi received little training as a sculptor; his tasks included arranging the horses and modeling for the monument as General Sherman. He did pick up some skills in casting from Borglum’s Italian assistants. But at summer’s end, Borglum told Noguchi he would never become a sculptor. Borglum couldn’t have been more wrong.

Discouraged, Noguchi, still using the name Sam Gilmour, enrolled as a premed student at Columbia University on the advice of a mentor, but several other people, including his mother, encouraged him to pursue his interest in the arts. One of those people was Onorio Ruotolo, head of the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York City. While still enrolled at Columbia, Noguchi took night classes at the art school, and Ruotolo was so impressed that he gave him his first show after only three months of training. The artist dropped out of Columbia and resumed using the name Isamu Noguchi.

In 1926, Noguchi visited an exhibition of work by Constantin Brâncusi—a Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer who worked in France—and was so fascinated that he subsequently moved to Paris to work in Brâncusi’s studio. Two years later he returned to New York City and pursued his artistic interests, creating sculptures, gardens, ceramics, architecture, set designs, furniture and lighting. “His work, at once subtle and bold, traditional and modern, set a new standard for the reintegration of the arts,” according to The Noguchi Museum, which the artist established in 1985 in Long Island City, New York.