Isamu Noguchi: Challenging the Boundaries of Design and Art

Isamu Noguchi - Pair of Isamu Noguchi - Pair of "Three-Legged Cylinder" table lamps, model no. 9, (designed 1944, manufactured 1947-1954). Sold for $11,000 via Phillips (December 2019).
Isamu Noguchi posing in front of his father’s poem Kane ga naru at his exhibition at Mitsukoshi Department Store, Tokyo, August 1950

Isamu Noguchi posing in front of his father’s poem Kane ga naru at his exhibition at Mitsukoshi Department Store, Tokyo, August 1950 (Wikimedia Commons).

In a career spanning six decades, the artist and architect Isamu Noguchi’s belief that sculpture could be a vital force in our everyday life helped to form the foundations of his lasting legacy that integrated his Japanese and American heritage into innovative creations that challenged the boundaries of design and art. 

Noguchi saw art as something that teaches human beings how to become more human. He realized his belief through sculptures and designs that merged geometric and organic forms with both positive and negative space. Works like The Whole, Jack in the Box, Octetra, as well as domestic designs like the famous Noguchi table (produced with Herman Miller) and the iconic original baby monitor, the Zenith Radio Nurse have all found their way into the cannon of modern American design.

Creating a wide variety of works that embraced social, environmental, and spiritual consciousness, Noguchi’s risk-taking approach to sculpture as a living environment has allowed his work to live on around the world, as well as at the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Japan and the Noguchi Museum in New York City.

Constructing a future

Isamu Noguchi - Avatar (1988).

Isamu Noguchi, Avatar (1988). Sold for $3,554,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2010).

Noguchi was born in Los Angeles into an artistic family on November 17 1904. His father was the acclaimed Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and his mother, American writer Léonie Gilmour. The couple met when Gilmour was hired to assist Noguchi with his English, but by the time Isamu Noguchi was born, his father had returned to Japan. In 1906, Isamu and Léonie moved to Tokyo to live with his father, but left in 1910 for Omori. By 1912 nine-year-old Noguchi was already showcasing the skills that would make him a star when he helped with the construction of the family home in Chigasaki.

Isamu Noguchi, The Sky.

Isamu Noguchi, The Sky (1964). Sold for £2,662,500 via Christie’s (June 2021).

At the age of 13, the young Noguchi was sent to a boarding school in the USA, where he was known as Sam Gilmour and it wasn’t until after he left college that he took his father’s surname again. In 1922, the artist in waiting was given an incredible opportunity when tutoring the son of sculptor Gutzon Borglum in Connecticut. In exchange for tutelage, he worked as an apprentice to the future Mount Rushmore sculptor. Sadly the relationship ended on a sour note when Borglum crushingly claimed that Noguchi was talentless. In the same year, Noguchi entered Columbia University as a pre-med student.

Art was still present in his life, though, and he took sculpture classes at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School while in New York in 1924. His mother had moved to the city in the same year and had encouraged him to pursue his first love – and by the following year he had left Columbia.

Isamu Noguchi, Jomon.

Isamu Noguchi, Jomon (1963). Sold for $824,000 via Sotheby’s (May 2007).

It was a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1927 that restored his focus on art, taking him to Paris, where he was taught the foundations of stonework. He served as the studio assistant of the patriarch of modern sculpture, Constantin Brâncuși, who taught him to appreciate “the value of the moment”. During this time he rubbed shoulders with Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, and Jules Pascin in the bohemian art scene. Noguchi produced one sculpture – his marble Sphere Section – in Paris and returned to New York in 1928 where he held his first solo show at the Eugene Schoen Gallery.

Isamu Noguchi, Banc (1966).

Isamu Noguchi, Banc (1966). Sold for €920,000 via Christie’s (October 2020).

The show garnered critical praise, but it was a financial flop. In search of a living, Noguchi produced portrait sculptures and busts of well-known artists such as George Gershwin, Martha Graham, and Buckminster Fuller. A return to New York in 1931 heralded a change of focus for Noguchi, who became involved in social and labor activism and produced designs for workers’ memorials, public art projects and political works. 


Noguchi’s life – and the lives of millions more – were permanently changed following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. A wave of anti-Japanese sentiment followed, with Japanese Americans becoming a target. In response, Noguchi formed an antifascist group called the Nisei Writers and Artists for Democracy in 1942. In the same year, he made a bold, brave, and ultimately naïve decision to enter an internment camp for Japanese prisoners in Poston, Arizona, to promote arts and crafts and community. What was intended to be a short spell turned into a nightmare, as Noguchi was held for seven unproductive months in the camp as he was held as a suspicious person by intelligence officers. During his internment Noguchi wrote I Become a Nisei, in which he questions the democracy of the American government.

Following his release from the camp in November 1942, Noguchi (somewhat surprisingly) remained in the United States and in 1947 he began a productive partnership with Herman Miller. This produced several iconic pieces of the modernist canon, including the iconic Noguchi table, which remains in production today. Other iconic pieces produced during this period include a range of furniture and lamps in collaboration with Knoll.

Isamu Noguchi, Capital #2.

Isamu Noguchi, Capital #2 (1941/2). Sold for $600,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2018).

It was a 1962 trip to Italy and the American Academy in Rome that would help cement his lasting legacy. During the next decade he began a series of marble works that relied on a tightened, internal metal rod to hold the pieces together. Noguchi also started his memorable Void series in Italy in 1970, all the while he continued to create public sculptures, gardens, fountains, and playgrounds for international sites. It’s his late sculptural work in unpolished stone, though, that challenged sculptural expectation and made an artistic impact. 

Sculpting his legacy

Isamu Noguchi, Rudder stool, model IN-22.

Isamu Noguchi, Rudder stool, model IN-22 (1944). Sold for $20,000 via Wright (October 2022).

Forming part of Noguchi’s determined effort to create sculptural spaces for the general public, unpolished works like Shoda Shima defined this new approach and formed part of the Noguchi’s Imaginary Landscapes exhibition at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in April 1978. The retrospective of his work put into context the breadth of his work and his unique blend of Eastern and Western art, featuring his 1933 model Monument to Ben Franklin, which led to a commission for a public work unveiled in 1984.

This retrospective was preceded by the Shapes of Light exhibition at Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery in December 1969, which displayed his versatility as an artist and focused on his ongoing collaboration with the Gifu, which produced new shapes for traditionally crafted paper lanterns. Perhaps his most significant exhibition though took place in March 1949, when he was handed his first one-person show in New York since 1935 at the Charles Egan Gallery.

The sheer breadth of Noguchi’s art. Considered by some to be an Abstract Expressionist, Noguchi is instead an individual in his own mold. His dual heritage and his experience travelling has tuned his individual aesthetic to create a unique blend of Eastern and Western art that is distinctly Noguchi. 

This individual approach has left a lasting legacy and had a distinct influence on the following generations of artists, designers, and architects. Thanks to an unwavering determination to create public sculptures there’s a wealth of his inventive designs, sculptures and architecture to be found in museum collections, public spaces, as well as inside everyday homes. Very few artists can attest to such a legacy.