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Design Classics

Akari Lamps, from 1951

Designer: Isamu Noguchi

As the son of a Japanese father and an American mother, the artist Isamu Noguchi spent his life reclaiming, reconciling and reflecting the dual nature of his life. He spent his early years in Japan, returned to the United States and studied art in New York and later apprenticed with the sculptor Brancusi in Paris. He’s known for his monumental granite, basalt and metal sculpture; stage designs; landscaped gardens and furniture.

In the spring of 1951, Noguchi visited Gifu Prefecture in Japan, where he was smitten by the locally produced paper lanterns handcrafted from mulberry paper called washi (often incorrectly referred to as rice paper) and split bamboo. The savvy mayor of Gifu asked Noguchi to help revive the flagging local industry by designing new lamps for the American and European markets using traditional techniques and materials.

Noguchi called the lamps Akari, a word meaning “light” (in weight) in Japanese. He was referring as much to their function as to their grace as they perch on their spider-like wire feet. Over his career, Noguchi created a wide range of sizes and shapes from symmetrical cubes, cones and pyramids to off-kilter globes, from dainty table models to tall lights more than two metres high. The products were designed to collapse for shipping and to be easily assembled out of the box.

Akari lamps are a harmonious blend of Japanese handcraft and modernist sculptural form. The translucent paper diffuses the harshness an electric bulb and produces a warm, friendly glow. Because of their elemental forms and simple colour schemes – most are all white but some have jaunty splashes of red and black – they are perfectly matched on anything from a mid-century modern table to a Chippendale chest. Noguichi’s success in fusing sculpture and product design was a source of friction. Many of his artist colleagues thought his association with mass-production and marketing lacked the aesthetic integrity of the lonely artist struggling alone his unique creation. But the Akari lamps and other furniture design made Noguchi a very rich artist.

While there have been many knock-offs of the Akari series, a genuine one has a stamp of a red sun and half moon with the signature I. Noguchi. They are still made in Gifu Japan by the original manufacturer.

Noguchi lamps range in price from $145 to $1,400. While they may seem pricey, they are a lot more affordable and easier to get into your home than a 12 ton granite sculpture.

National Post, October 26, 2006