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How Noguchi Created an Icon

Noguchi sat with some cool AKARI lamps
30 Sep 2021
3 min read

Isamu Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures are a familiar sight in homes worldwide and have spawned many imitations. This is the story behind the icon.

‘All that you require to start a home are a room, a tatami, and Akari’ – Isamu Noguchi

In 1950 Noguchi returned to Japan for the first time in well over a decade. He was travelling on a Bollingen Foundation fellowship, studying the role of sculpture in the public sphere, visiting countries such as Greece, India and France.

The following summer he and architect Kenzo Tange were en route to Hiroshima to view progress on Tange’s Peace Park project when they stopped at Gifu, the centre of paper lantern manufacturing. There Noguchi saw the cormorant fishing festival, where the fishermen use paper lanterns, called chochin, to illuminate their boats at night. He was captivated.

‘The mayor of Gifu asked Noguchi if he would help revitalise the lantern-making industry,’ says Matt Kirsch, curator of research at The Noguchi Museum. ‘Not only had its economy suffered due to the Second World War, but before the war, the Japonisme movement in Europe and America saw a lot of knock-off paper lanterns which weren’t made in Japan.

Install image of Akari from Noguchi

‘This very potent visit – being on the river with this armada of lanterns, observing the quality of light through this particular paper, then visiting a factory to see how chochin were made - was an “aha” moment for Noguchi.‘ He decided to modernise the chochin by changing the candle inside for a light bulb.

He came up with two prototypes the next day,’ says Kirsch. ‘He engaged the Ozeki and Co. Ltd family, with whom we still work today. They came to an arrangement where Noguchi would come up with a shape, and the Ozeki family would make a wooden mould that they wind the bamboo ribbing around and then adhere the paper to that before collapsing the wooden mould. It wasn’t quite like assembly-line production because everything was handmade.’

It was important to Noguchi to blend the traditional and modernity. So true Akari lamps are made using strips of washi paper – from the inner bark of the mulberry tree – which is fixed to the bamboo frame using traditional glue.

Install view of Noguchi main room

Noguchi showed his first Akari at a major exhibition of his recent ceramics and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art Kamakura in 1952. But not everyone liked them. ‘Therewas a bit of a backlash. Some of the other avant-garde artists in Japan thought he was hemming too close to tradition,’ explains Kirsch. ‘It was a somewhat generational divide. The younger artists were attracted to his ideas, their teachers less so.’

Noguchi was not deterred. He saw the Akari as a way ‘to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living’. Sensing they would have mass appeal, he sought out retailers and distributors in the USA and Europe.

Their commercial aura led to some in the Western art world to debate whether Akari were ‘art’ or ‘design’ – a distinction Noguchi sought to disrupt by embracing a broad concept of art. This sort of resistance to his Akari lamps from artists and critics dogged Noguchi, but this was a passion project for him, and he made over 100 models before his death in 1988.

So what’s their legacy? No doubt their ubiquity, says Kirsch. ‘Noguchi would have hated them to be termed “luxury items”, but their price tag does factor into that so the fact that IKEA introduced a range of shapes imitative of Akari for the worldwide market and that caught on is testament to their allure and credibility.’



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