Isamu Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures were inspired by traditional Japanese lanterns.
Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) was a sculptor, architect, craftsman and designer famous for his mid-20th century modernist designs. Noguchi was born in Los Angeles to Japanese poet Yone Noguchi and American poet and writer Leonie Gilmour, but lived in Japan from 1906 to 1918, when he returned to the United States for schooling. Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures–over 100 hand-made models for table lights, standard lamps or ceiling luminaires–are among his most celebrated designs. Does this Spark an idea?
Akari Light Sculptures
Noguchi’s Akari Light Sculptures came about when the mayor of Gifu City appealed to the artist to help revive the paper lantern industry by creating new lamps for the American and European markets. The city was a major center for the production of mulberry bark paper and bamboo lanterns, with paper supplied by the nearby area of Mino, known for its high-quality mulberry paper, Mino-gami. The egg-shaped folding paper lanterns of Gifu, called cochin, were decorated with finely-painted flowers and grasses. However, after World War II a cheap variety of souvenir lantern was developed. Noguchi sketched the first of his Akari works during a visit to Gifu Prefecture in the spring of 1951, inspired by the traditional lanterns illuminating the night fishing on the Nagara River, according to an article for the Noguchi Museum by Bruce Altshuler.
By 1952 Ozeki and Company, a family firm that had been an importer maker of Gifu-chochin, began to commercially produce Noguchi’s Akari. Noguchi worked with the firm for over three decades, developing a line of lamps that eventually included over 100 models.
Fabrication of Akari follows the traditional process of Gifu lantern makers. Very thin pieces of bamboo are wound in a spiral around a multi-part wooden mold that defines the shape of the sculpture. Depending on the model, the bamboo is wound in the traditional tight, uniform style or in a looser, more irregular pattern. Strips of Mino paper are glued lengthwise over the bamboo structure, and the internal mold removed after the glue is dry and the shape set.
Noguchi’s primary technical innovation was the introduction of an interlocking skeletal wire support that includes an internal armature to extend the paper lantern to full form and a three- or four-legged base that gives the appearance of the light sculpture floating above it. The warm light cast through the handmade paper and the beautiful craftsmanship are further characteristics of Akari lighting.
The Akari Light Sculptures were part of Noguchi’s reclaiming of his Japanese cultural heritage and his merging of this heritage with Western modernism. Although the artist’s reputation suffered in New York due to his longstanding involvement with design, Noguchi continued to feel that art should play a productive role in everyday life. In addition, the creation of Akari assisted in Japanese economic reconstruction by helping a threatened craft industry.