Isamu Noguchi working on a marble slab and template in the courtyard of his MacDougal Alley Studio. September 25 1946. Photo: Eliot Elisofon, Courtesy of The Isamu Nogochi Foundation and Garden Museum. © Eliot Elisofon<br/>

George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi: A Life Between


A life between: the lives of influential twentieth century designers George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi ran parallel to each other. They both were raised between two very distinct cultures and both developed successful artistic careers that paid deep homage to their Japanese-American heritage.


A life between: the lives of influential twentieth century designers George Nakashima and Isamu Noguchi ran parallel to each other. They both were raised between two very distinct cultures and both developed successful artistic careers that paid deep homage to their Japanese-American heritage.

George Nakashima (1905–1990) was born in Washington D.C., United States, to Japanese parents. In the 1920s he trained as an architect but then in 1931 he travelled for a number of years, in search of a deeper meaning to life. He practised as an architect in Japan and India for a few years, and while in India Nakashima found the inner peace that he had been searching for, becoming deeply involved in the spiritual teachings of the Aurobindo sect. He also experimented with making his first pieces of furniture.  

In 1940 Nakashima returned to the United States and began making furniture and teaching woodwork, but was soon interned due to the Second World War, along with other United States residents and citizens with Japanese ancestry or family. In internment he was fortunate to meet the traditional Japanese cabinetmaker Gentaro Hikogawa, and Nakashima’s practice underwent a fundamental shift. While in internment he learnt traditional cabinet-making techniques and began to work with traditional Japanese hand tools. More importantly, under Hikogawa, Nakashima learnt the discipline of patience and perfection at every stage in the crafting process.  

A year later, Nakashima was released, and by 1946 he had established his own furniture workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Here he put down roots and embarked upon his career as a master craftsman, producing one-off and limited-edition solid wood furniture for the home. Nakashima’s reverence for trees and their majestic beauty was fundamental to his approach. He sourced his timbers himself, generally buying whole logs and milling them before storing the slabs for years, until they inspired a work. Many of his trees were hundreds of years old and Nakashima loved the fact that his furniture offered trees a second life, allowing the beauty of the grain, together with the natural flaws in the wood, to be appreciated in perpetuity. He wrote,  

A tree provides perhaps our most intimate contact with nature … There are specimens which in their single lives have spanned the entire history of civilized man … We woodworkers have the audacity to shape timber from these noble trees … Each tree, each part of each tree, has its own particular destiny and its own special relationship to be fulfilled. … We work with boards from these trees, to fulfill their yearning for a second life, to release their richness and beauty.

George NAKASHIMA (designer)<br/>
<em>Conoid, side chair</em> 1971 {designed}; 1975 {manufactured} <!-- (full view) --><br />

American black walnut (Juglans nigra), Hickory<br />
89.8 x 52.9 x 57.3 cm<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Norma Atwell Bequest, 2021<br />
2021.16<br />
&copy; Courtesy George Nakashima Foundation

Nakashima’s designs were heavily influenced by both Shaker and Japanese aesthetics and philosophies, in particular his use of the spindle back, a feature which ultimately derives from eighteenth-century English Windsor chairs, and the celebration of hardwood timbers with their natural imperfections. His approach was in direct opposition to that of many designers of the postwar decades, whose work focused solely on newly developed synthetic materials and their associated technologies, aligned with mass production. Despite this, Nakashima is celebrated for the integrity of his designs and his philosophical approach, both of which combine traditional craftsmanship with a highly refined contemporary aesthetic. In 1983 he was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an honour bestowed by the emperor of Japan and the Japanese government. The Nakashima workshop is still a family business and is now run by his daughter Mira. 

George NAKASHIMA (designer)<br />
 SAKURA SEISAKUSHO, Takamatsu (manufacturer)<br/>
<em>Cono&iuml;d, bench</em> (1971) {designed}; (c. 1975) {manufactured} <!-- (front 3/4) --><br />

Walnut (Juglans sp.), Hickory (Carya sp.)<br />
(80.5 x 245.0 x 90.0 cm)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2021<br />
2021.557<br />
Photo: &copy; Xavier Defaix

Isamu Noguchi’s life (1904–1988) was one of constant journeying, both spiritual and physical, between two cultures. Born in California, United States, to a Japanese father and an American mother, Noguchi was raised in Japan but studied in the United States and later in Paris under the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. He travelled widely throughout his career and although based largely in New York, Noguchi returned regularly to Japan, particularly during the decades following the Second World War. 

Noguchi is primarily regarded as a sculptor but his career was multifaceted, and he achieved great success as a landscape architect, designing public gardens, playgrounds and outdoor plazas where his sculptures often featured, as well as designing stage sets and costumes for major theatre productions. At various points throughout his career Noguchi also ventured into domestic object design, and in 1931 he designed the bakelite case for the Hawkeye measured time clock and kitchen timer, which is now recognised as his first commercially manufactured design. Even at this early stage in his career we see Noguchi’s engagement with rounded forms, an aesthetic which became synonymous with his practice. 

In 1947 Noguchi began a collaboration with the furniture company Herman Miller, which produced his Coffee table, model no. IN-50, now an icon of twentieth-century design and still in production today. Again we see Noguchi’s sensibility for organic, rounded forms in the cleverly resolved design, the curving forms reflecting Noguchi’s desire to incorporate sculpture into people’s everyday lives. 

Isamu NOGUCHI (designer)<br />
 HERMAN MILLER, Michigan (manufacturer)<br/>
<em>Coffee table, model IN-50</em> (c. 1944) {designed} <!-- (view 1) --><br />

Walnut (Juglans sp.), glass, aluminium<br />
(a-b) 40.0 x 127.5 x 91.3 cm (overall)<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Ursula Jacobs Bequest, 2021<br />
2021.15<br />
&copy; Isamu Noguchi / Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

During his trip to Japan in 1951 Noguchi visited the town of Gifu, known for its manufacture of chochin, traditional paper lanterns made from bamboo and washi paper. He toured the chochin factory of Ozeki Jishichi Shoten (now Ozeki & Co. Ltd.) and was inspired by the simplicity and flexibility of the technique. Noguchi’s ideas for sculpture were uninhibited by conventional boundaries and he immediately saw potential in the idea of light sculptures that could be installed within domestic living spaces. He began experimenting with new designs, which the Ozeki factory produced for him, and over the next year Noguchi produced his first range of ‘Akari’ light sculptures. He wrote, ‘The name Akari, which I coined, means in Japanese light as illumination. It also suggests lightness as opposed to weight.’ Noguchi’s lamps are all marked with the ideograph of a sun and moon, which was designed by his half-brother, the photographer Michio Noguchi. For the next thirty years Noguchi produced over 200 designs for table, floor and pendant lights in a range of configurations and sizes, many of which are still in production today. They marry traditional Japanese art forms and materials with modern design, embodying Noguchi’s philosophy of elegant, functional and affordable design.   

Isamu NOGUCHI (designer)<br />
 OZEKI & CO., Gifu (manufacturer)<br/>
<em>Akari, table lamp, model no. 23N</em> (1969) {designed} <!-- (full view) --><br />

Japanese paper, bamboo, enamelled metal, metal, rubber, electrical components<br />
119.0 x 81.5 cm diameter<br />
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne<br />
Purchased NGV Foundation, 2021<br />
2021.555<br />
&copy; Isamu Noguchi/Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia

In 1986, two years before his death, Noguchi received the coveted Kyoto Prize and gave a speech entitled, ‘The Road I Have Walked’. He reflected,  

I think my madness in wanting to make gardens and so forth lies in this usefulness; it’s a kind of a humanising of space, and humanising of sculpture. It’s not merely sculpture for aesthetic purposes, nor a question of ego … Rather, it is something that is actually very useful, and very much a part of people’s lives … I think this probably comes from my own background: the need for belonging … the need to feel that there is someplace on the earth which an artist can affect in such a way that the art in that place makes for a better life and a better possibility of survival. 

Amanda Dunsmore is NGV Senior Curator, International Decorative Arts & Antiquities. The NGV warmly acknowledges Norma Atwell Bequest and Ursula Jacobs Bequest for supporting these acquisitions.  

This essay was commissioned for NGV Magazine Issue 29 | Jul–Aug 2021.