The truth about the Noguchi coffee table

I’ve never really known what I think of the Noguchi glass table, it’s a simple design and seen everywhere almost as much as the Eames lounge chair is. But this is sometimes what happens to a popular design which doesn’t make it less of a good design to be associated to so many other things.

I wanted to do some digging around to learn more about the table, to see why people love it so much and to confirm my thoughts that this is a great design and not to relegate it to the box of ubiquity. Afterall, any piece of furniture which sparks a Tumblr blog called ‘Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table‘ has surely become an icon of design.

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Born in 1904 in Los Angeles to an American mother and a Japanese father, Isamu Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of 13, when he moved to Indiana. While studying pre-medicine at Columbia University, he took evening sculpture classes on New York’s Lower East Side, mentoring with the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon left the University to become an academic sculptor.

Having spent much of the 1930s based in New York City but traveling in Asia, Mexico, and Europe, in 1942 Noguchi set up his studio in Greenwich Village. What is not as well known is that in the same year Noguchi became politically active in the US after the attacks on Pearl Harbour the year before. He asked to be placed in an internment camp in Arizona, where he lived for seven months.

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“I went to Hawaii in 1939 to do an advertisement (with Georgia O’Keefe)” says Noguchi. “As a result of this, I had met (T.H.) Robsjohn-Gibbings, the furniture designer, who had asked me to do a coffee table for him. I designed a small model in plastic and heard no further before I went west.” By ‘west’, Noguchi was referring to his time in the internment camp three years later.

While he was interned, Noguchi said he was surprised to see a version of the small plastic model he had done for Robsjohn-Gibbings published as an advertisement for the English designer. Noguchi later said “when, on my return, I remonstrated, he said anybody could make a three-legged table. In revenge, I made my own variant of my own table.”

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Noguchi produced a number of versions of this table and, from time-to-time, you will find these coming up for auction in different materials and shapes but akin to the coffee table that we now know. The same year in which Noguchi had his table copied, he was commissioned by A. Conger Goodyear, president of the Museum of Modern Art to make him a table, and so another version was produced.

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Later, Director of Design for Herman Miller, George Nelson dropped by and found Noguchi working on a piece he intended to give his sister for her birthday. Noguchi had cut a piece of scavenged glass for the top and made a base using two identical pieces of wood fitted together by a single pin. By 1947, the table was part of the Herman Miller collection.

“Everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space I consider sculpture” says Noguchi. “To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school,” he said. “I am always learning, always discovering.”

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Designer: Isamu Noguchi
Manufacturer: Herman Miller / Vitra
Year: 1947
Price: From £1223 at Heal’s

Daniel

Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started ateliertally.com as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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