Noguchi coffee table
This MCM living room includes a Noguchi coffee table right at the center. The sculptural table is one of Noguchi’s famous and beloved designs. Photo by Jim Brown.

You may not immediately recognize the name, but Isamu Noguchi is the artist behind many of your favorite lamps and coffee tables. The L.A.-born Japanese-American lived in Japan until he was 13 years old, allowing him to develop an international appreciation for the arts.

Unfortunately, after the Japanese invaded Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans faced discrimination, and Noguchi was not spared. He lived in a Japanese internment camp for 7 months, which ignited his political activism and deepened his appreciation for the people of the world.

In his lifetime, he created sculptures, gardens, furniture, lighting designs, ceramics, architecture and set designs for many famous dancer/choreographers including Martha Graham.

Isamu Noguchi with Kouros sculpture
A portrait of a young Noguchi with his sculpture, Kouros. Photo courtesy of Wikiart.

His work went unnoticed until he completed a large sculpture symbolizing the freedom of the press in 1938 for the Associated Press building in New York City. Perhaps, this is how he, an artist, chose to express his political views.

He set up shop in New York and traveled extensively in Mexico, Asia and Europe. He studied the world and its people, and it influenced his artistic expressions. Additionally, The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum was designed by him and opened in 1985, demonstrating his commitment to beautifying public places.

He welcomed the opportunity to be involved in mass-production of his designs. Zenith Radio Corporation asked him to design a Bakelite intercom in 1937, and Herman Miller produced his glass-topped table, many of which are found in midcentury living rooms across the country to this day. Akari Light Sculptures that were originally produced in 1951 based on his design, too, are still being produced today.

Noguchi Akari lights
Noguchi’s Akari lighting series is another one of his most famous and enduring designs and includes pendant lights, table lamps, and floor lamps. Public Domain.

Before his death in 1988, he received multiple awards for his contributions including: the Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts; the National Medal of Arts; the Kyoto Prize in Arts, and the Order of Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government.

Photo of Isamu Noguchi
A photograph of Isamu Noguchi in 1950 or 1951 taken by photographer Jun Miki at an art exhibition. The photo is now public domain.

The peaceful and structured implications of his Asian ancestry, and his appreciation for the arts on an international scale, undoubtedly influenced his design. Those same principles have impacted the mid century aesthetic, and we are all the better for it.

For more on Noguchi’s work, see Noguchi’s Hidden Sculpture Garden in California. And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Mid Century Modern inspiration!