The Noguchi coffee table is one of the most recognised modern designs in the world and has featured in countless magazines since it first appeared in 1947.
Originally designed in 1939 for the president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (it remains in the museum’s collection), it was later modified and manufactured by Herman Miller and has been in production almost ever since, apart from a decade-long break between 1973 and 1984.
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was an American-Japanese designer whose motto was “everything is sculpture” and, indeed, the table’s first catalogue listing described it as “sculpture-for-use”.
Born in Los Angeles to a Japanese poet and an American mother, Noguchi spent his early years in Japan before returning to the US as a teenager, where he began studying medicine only to quit to pursue his love of sculpture.
He would go on to make several public works, but his career was briefly interrupted following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He voluntarily entered an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona and then was refused permission to leave. After seven months, he was released. “I was finally free,” he said. “I resolved henceforth to be an artist only.”
In addition to his furniture, Noguchi’s paper Akari lanterns are still handmade from washi paper and bamboo ribbing but, it is the coffee table for which he is best known.
Up until his death in 1988, Noguchi divided his time between an old industrial lot in Long Island City in Queens, New York, and another home and studio on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands.