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Isamu Noguchi: Aesthetic Efficiency

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Meet Isamu Noguchi.


Misfits’ doesn’t normally have much time for artists, especially superstar sculptors, but the rules need to be bent a bit for Isamu Noguchi. There’s a biography here. Noguchi is sometimes known for this sculpture he did in 1940.


Some of you may have seen it.

isamu noguchi rockerfeller

Many will know this coffee table he designed for Herman Miller in 1947.


But rather than for these, Noguchi deserves a place on this blog for having ideas that produced a great effect yet simple to construct. More from less, in other words. More aesthetic bang for the buck. For example, he designed these fountains for Expo ’70 in Osaka.


It’s a simple idea, not too complicated to construct and the illusion of cubes rocketing upwards is very effective as a fountain-object thing in a pond. It doesn’t need to do anything more than that.

Noguchi’s public landscape/sculpture draws upon the tradition of Japanese rock gardens best typified by Ryoanji – umm, Temple of the Relaxing Dragon? Peaceful Dragon? – you know the one.


He managed to bring this sensibility to a garden that is known as Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario.


And did the same thing but differently for UNESCO in Paris in 1956-1958.


This garden has come to be known as the “Peace Garden” but parts of it have come to seem very familiar.

unesco peace garden

Yes, they are the inspiration for low-maintenance public space that has rocks instead of grass, with varying accompanying degrees of Japaneseness. Like exposed concrete columns and slabs with brick infill, this is one of those very good ideas that, once it was presented once as high art, was immensely useful and applicable to most anywhere and was never thought of as high-art again. This is a good thing if open space can be used for more things by more people for longer.


These days, it’s known as “hard landscaping” – a euphemism for “low-maintenance”.

High-maintenance open space is still a good way to show one can afford to maintain high-maintenance open space.


This effect, much prized on the large expanses of lawn fronting mid-Victorian stately home gardens, meant the lawn had to be trimmed using hand clippers. How posh is that?!


The effect may be simple but the decadence of process is display of wealth by stealth. So we shouldn’t sneer at simplicity even if cost-cutting is one of its side effects.

Another of Noguchi’s great ideas is also derived from Japanese tradition of paper lanterns.


Most people will have at some stage of their life owned or been in a room with a light fitting derived from the range of lamps he designed around 1951 and which are known by the Japanese word  “akari” (meaning “light”). They were apparently inspired by the lanterns used for night fishing on the Nagara River.

night fishing on the nagara river

You know them.  


Most of the original range is still available for sale at the website – at 2013 prices.


Or you can find copies throughout the world via Galeries Layfayette


or IKEA.


Or anywhere really. This is another good idea of Noguchi’s that found immediate and widespread acceptance. The original designs can still be purchased but there are expensive derivatives, inexpensive ones, sophisticated ones, simple ones. They are student staples. People who want nothing more from a lampshade other than for it to cover the light bulb after they’ve moved in will find themselves still living with them a decade later. What were lampshades ever like before Noguchi?

This is what happens when there are no boundaries between the fine and applied arts.