Isamu Noguchi Revealed
After all the recent fanfare, one fascinating secret remains
Fred A. Bernstein -- Interior Design, 12/1/2004 12:00:00 AM
The artist at work in Long Island City, New York, in a brick warehouse that also contained his own apartment.
His upstairs bedroom, a composition of African wood carvings and his own sculptures.
A Rocking stool, a Cyclone table base, and an Akari lantern in the apartment's public area.
With his incomparable Akari lamps and classic cocktail tables, Isamu Noguchi exerted an influence on interiors that extends far beyond the few stunning rooms he designed. His lobby at New York's 666 Fifth Avenue is still a revelation, and a gallery at the newly reopened Noguchi Museum in Long Island City makes a case for him being one of the 20th century's seminal interior designers. But one space essential to understanding his contributions remains largely unknown.
Right across the street from the museum—in a red-brick building that Noguchi purchased in 1961, primarily as workshop and warehouse space—is his own apartment, which now serves as an office and storage. Metal shelving units fill much of the downstairs public area. Above, a pair of filing cabinets and a hollow-core door form a makeshift desk where his bed once was.
"I am always nowhere," the peripatetic Japanese-American artist once told a reporter. Actually, the apartment demonstrates that he had a clear idea of somewhere. Built by a Japanese carpenter, the space combined elements of East and West. In the center of the public area, Noguchi set a tabletop of white plastic laminate on a chrome Cyclone base, surrounded by Rocking stools—both Noguchi designs made by Knoll. Over the table hangs a huge Akari with a horsehair pull.
Jonathan Marvel, a principal of Rogers Marvel Architects, talks of long lunches beneath that Akari, "yellow and fading and beautiful." That was in the 1980's, when he lived in the loft in exchange for weekend cooking services, an arrangement made possible by his great-uncle, Buckminster Fuller. (A longtime friend of Noguchi, Fuller poetically wrote of the artist working "with the total bodily coordination of a tiger.") Along the kitchen wall was Noguchi's library—Marvel recalls a book on Spanish and Scottish castles, a gift from Louis Kahn.
Of the stairs leading to the second floor, the first step is a boulder on which Noguchi displayed a pair of bamboo slippers. The second step, a thick slate slab, extends beyond the stairway to become a kind of coffee table for displaying objects found—or made—by him. The remaining steps are boards of salvaged Japanese old-growth pine, left over from a batch that Noguchi used mostly to make pedestals for sculptures.
The upstairs bedroom is hidden behind shoji screens, as if in imperial Kyoto rather than industrial Long Island City, and some of the screens are backlit by fluorescents. Because the ceiling—simply the underside of the building's gypsum roof—made the room impossibly hot in summer, Noguchi improvised insulation: He lashed cardboard tubes to rows of metal rods, creating a surface of parallel curves comparable to the wavelike ceiling of 666 Fifth.
His bed consisted of a foam-rubber mattress with a skirt of birch veneer. Next to the bed was a wooden table into which he sank a volume control for his stereo and dimmers for his lights. "Bachelor-pad style," says George Juergens, who began as Noguchi's studio assistant and still works for the museum. Around the room, Noguchi arranged African wood carvings, several small Akaris, and his own sculptures in a variety of mediums.
Tellingly, he considered the bedroom important enough to include a carefully composed shot in his 1968 memoir, A Sculptor's World, along with his library terrace at Yale University and bridge in Hiroshima, Japan. Now, most of the room has been dismantled. The cardboard insulating tubes, which had begun to sag, were removed as a fire hazard. Some of furnishings are still there, though not in their original locations, and architect Shoji Sadao uses the space as an office. A longtime Noguchi collaborator, Sadao has refrained from making permanent changes, though he has no plans to relocate.
Downstairs, sheet-metal sculptures hang from a peg board across from the onetime library. Intact, however, are the themes fundamental to Noguchi's sculpture: the modulation of repetitive elements, the contrasts of hard and soft, natural and machined, planar and curved. In addition, Marvel observes, the artist used a Japanese kit of parts to shape his inner sanctum—pine boards, shoji screens, paper tubes recalling bamboo poles—while the factory building is an American kit of parts, namely red brick, cinder block, and steel.
The dualities become that much more interesting when expanded to embrace Noguchi's other home, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, a spot as rural as Long Island City is urban. Together, the two spaces explain Noguchi's life and work better than either could alone.
The Shikoku studio has been preserved just as Noguchi left it, and the warehouse apartment must be restored, says his companion, Priscilla Morgan, who met the artist in 1959 and remained close to him until his death in 1988. Marvel agrees with her. "My great joy was seeing the everyday side of Noguchi." Others deserve that chance.