We’ve written about Discovering Design before – it’s a great collection of pictures, stories and video from the Herman Miller archives. I was particularly taken by the story behind Isamu Noguchi’s glass-topped table. I didn’t know he’d spent time in an internment camp or that there was an early version of the table that existed before George Nelson stumbled upon the design in Noguchi’s studio. Below you’ll find Noguchi’s words excerpted from his 1968 autobiography, A Sculptor’s World, which was rereleased in 2004.
“I went to Hawaii in 1939 to do an advertisement (with Georgia O’Keefe). As a result of this, I had met (T.H.) Robsjohn-Gibbings, the furniture designer, who had asked me to do a coffee table for him,” Noguchi remembered. “I designed a small model in plastic and heard no further before I went west.”
Noguchi was Japanese-American and going west refers to his internment in the Poston, Arizona, concentration camp during World War II. While he was interned, Noguchi said he was surprised to see a version of the small plastic model he had done for Robsjohn-Gibbings published as an advertisement for the English designer. “When, on my return, I remonstrated, he said anybody could make a three-legged table,” said Noguchi. “In revenge, I made my own variant of my own table.”
The “variant” Noguchi designed was used to illustrate an article, written by George Nelson, called “How to Make a Table.” Nelson had seen the table some months earlier at Noguchi’s studio. Dropping in to see his good friend, Nelson found him working on a piece he intended to give his sister for her birthday. Noguchi had cut a piece of scavenged glass for the top and made a base using two identical pieces of wood fitted together by a single pin. Nelson liked the organic shape. By 1947, the table became part of the Herman Miller product line. It reflects Noguchi’s belief that “everything is sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space I consider sculpture.”
“To limit yourself to a particular style may make you an expert of that particular viewpoint or school, but I do not wish to belong to any school,” he said. “I am always learning, always discovering.”
The Noguchi Table with a cherry base.
Photo credits top to bottom: Noguchi at work via Vitra. Noguchi coffee table via Herman Miller Discovering Design. Noguchi and his wife via Unframe. Noguchi outside the Eames house via Architectural Ruminations.