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Noguchi Table Design Story

Two simple, elegantly curved pieces of wood. A large, flat, clear and clean sheet of glass. These are the only materials in the Noguchi Table, the three lines of a haiku concerning beauty, elegance, simplicity, reflection, and two boats floating on the surface of a calm lake. Not bad for three pieces of material. The man who put it all together, who joined the separate elements (which, orginally, were found objects, scavenged and re-purposed) into a tone poem that has lasted longer than he has, is Isamu Noguchi, one of the great sculptors, set designers, and interior/industrial designers of the past century. The chair table that's seen today is actually a recent version; the first, which was "borrowed" and bastardized, has been forgotten, mostly because of the borderline majesty of the official version.

The design of the Noguchi Table has been rightly celebrated for more than six decades. Herman Miller first began to produce and sell the table in 1947, just after the second world war, and sales have been steady ever since that time. It's no wonder the table is so popular; it's beautiful, it's easy to put together, and it's very well balanced. But the table would not have lasted this long if the only thing it had going for it was a popular reputation. Indeed, without the constant and vocal praise of critics and designers, it would not have become what it is today.

Noguchi Table

Today the Noguchi Table is considered one of the finest low tables anywhere in the world. It certainly has an exalted place among the elite designs in American industrial design history. The creator of the piece, Isamu Noguchi, was an exemplary sculptor and designer, and when he died he left behind a museum, a foundations, and whole reams of newsprint and journalism singing his praises, and that of his beautiful, simple, elegant furniture and design.

Looking back at all of that shining history, it might be a surprise to know that it all started with a theft, and a simple, smug challenge from a domineering competitor.

When Noguchi was first beginning his career, he designed a radio that was, in effect, the very first baby monitor. It was extremely successful (as a quick scan of any young child's bedroom can attest), Noguchi became, if not a household name, a well known name among industrial designers and critics. He went to have a meeting with (at the time) noted designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. At the time he was working on an advertisement for world-famous artist Georgia O'Keefe, in Hawaii. At the meeting, Robsjohn-Gibbings asked him to design a table; this Noguchi did, in a small plastic model. He left the model with Robsjohn-Gibbings, expecting either a commission or rejection.

Noguchi Table

Then Noguchi's life entered a dark period. In a biography, he described it as "going west," but in reality he was sent to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The atrocity of Japanese-American citizens corralled and imprisoned is one still not well known to a large percentage of Americans, but these experiences profoundly affected the lives of many Japanese-Americans who were living here in the early 1940s. Noguchi himself bore the mark of the internment camp for years. Adding insult to injury, many of his early radio models were destroyed for having a Japanese designer, and a Japanese name, affixed to their bodies. Bad enough to be illegally and immorally imprisoned for committing no crime, worse to be then partially erased from the record books, an invention of your erased from the popular consciousness and your name expunged from an invention that would go on to profoundly affect the world. It goes without saying that his time in the internment camp was very hard on Noguchi.

When he emerged from the impromptu prisons, he saw his table again; in an advertisement for an English company associated with Robsjohn-Gibbings. He was understandably upset, and went to Robsjohn-Gibbings for answers. After an argument, Robsjohn-Gibbings put off (and put down) the younger, somewhat unknown designer with these arrogant, dismissive words: "Anyone can design a three legged chair." Noguchi set out to prove him wrong, and make his own way, and the eventually result was the massively popular aesthetic achievement that is the Noguchi Table.

Noguchi started with found materials. The first prototype of what is no known as the Noguchi Table was created with a slab of found glass and carefully sculpted, individual wood pieces. The themes of reflection, nature and deep peace were taken from Noguchi's own experiences and organic, physical connection to the world of design and sculpture. He saw the two as inseparable, and his sure, artistic lines, extant in abundance with the Noguchi Table, bear that out. His table is as expressive as any painting or line of music, and of course it adds functionality and usability to it's long list of accomplishments and commendable attributes.

The Noguchi Table emerged from turmoil; a stolen model, a hard time in Noguchi's life. But it is a deeply calm creation, an almost magical melding of material and creative instincts, and it's lasting contribution to the annals of interior and industrial design is its poetic sense of self, and its sculptural rendition of the organic ideal first espoused in America by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright.

How did the table come to Herman Miller?

Herman Miller has had a relationship with Noguchi, and now with the Noguchi Foundation, for more than 60 years. They began manufacturing and producing the table in 1947, just after the end of the war in Europe and Japan (and of course, after Noguchi's term in the internment camps).

One of the best designers on the Herman Miller staff at the time was George Nelson. Nelson was a fan of Noguchi's work, and was inspired when he visited the Noguchi studio and saw the table. Indeed, it was that table that would serve as the illustration and source of one of Nelson's groundbreaking articles on furniture; this article was titled "How to Build a Table," and it's hard to think of a better example he could have possibly used than the Noguchi Table. Thanks to their friendship, the look of the chair and the success of the article, the partnership between Herman Miller and Noguchi was born. It has lasted a long, long time, and Herman Miller is very proud to be the official manufacturers of one of the finest low tables ever built.

What makes the design special?

The story of the Noguchi Table is the story of organic design, and the story of sculptural influence on industrial and interior design.

Noguchi Table

As stated before in this article, the Noguchi Table is a flawless work of sculpture that would have its place alongside any painting or line of music in the canon of representational art. The ideas that mesh within the piece are calming, ingenious, diverting, and lovely.

Physically, the table give the impression of a placid lake, with a canoe cutting quietly across it's still waters. Actually, it gives the impression of two canoes, two lakes, and an ever-reflecting, self-contained system. It's rare indeed to see design with so much going on in such a limited, simple space. The sculpture is poetic, haiku-esque. It's elegant, simple, and it expresses a lot with just a few "brush strokes." Just a few pieces of wood and a pane of glass; design distilled to it's essence and reflected on itself.

But even if it wasn't as exemplary, as gorgeous and critically lauded as it is, it would still have a huge amount a value only because it is a Noguchi. Working in fields as diverse as industrial design, set design, ballet, sculpture and art, Noguchi is a same that means quite a lot in the design world. The Noguchi Foundation, whose mission it is to protect and serve his legacy, have worked with Herman Miller to make sure the Noguchi Table you order from Smart Furniture is the same quality and high-standard table that you would have received in 1947. They've also introduced security measures to make sure yours is marked as an original, and you can easily identify knock-offs.

Noguchi Table

This is a design worth having, and Smart Furniture is very proud to offer our customers the Herman Miller Noguchi Table.

In the end, there really isn't a finer low table in American design than the Noguchi Table. Smart Furniture is proud to offer our customers all the great design and formal beauty attendant with this piece. Simple and easy to put together and take apart, it's emblematic of some of the Smart Furniture first principles of design; that it shouldn't be hard, that it should be available to everyone, and that you shouldn't need a whole toolbox just to put together a simple piece of furniture.

Perhaps the greatest praise the Noguchi Table can be given is that it proves, once and for all, that not everyone can make, really make, a three legged table.

 

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