By Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press
The round, white, paper light shades sold at Ikea for $5 are a familiar item in contemporary interior design. But these inexpensive lanterns are knockoffs of light sculptures created by the renowned artist Isamu Noguchi in the early 1950s.
The Noguchi lamps — called akari, the Japanese word for light — were inspired by traditional Japanese lanterns used in ancestor worship. Over the decades, the akari became classics of mid-20th century modern home decor.
Noguchi’s original designs are still handmade in Japan; they come in a variety of colors and dozens of geometric designs — including the widely imitated white sphere — and range in price from $100 to $1,000. And they pop up in some pretty cool places, from painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico to Tony Stark’s bedroom in “Iron Man 3.”
The story of how the late Noguchi came to create akari is rooted in the recovery of Japan’s post-World War II economy and the cross-cultural currents that influenced his spare, bold, modernist aesthetics.
Noguchi’s mother was American; his father Japanese. They never married. Born in 1904, Noguchi spent years in both countries during his youth.
After World War II, he was greatly admired by the art and design community in Japan, and at some point met the mayor of the town of Gifu, where local industry centered around making lanterns for ancestry worship, using paper from mulberry trees.
“The mayor asked Noguchi, ‘Can you help us resurrect our lantern business?’” said Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, N.Y. “That’s how the akari were first produced. They were exported as an economic product and were well-received by the design community.”
She said that Noguchi “papered them sculpturally. He didn’t call them lanterns or lamps; he called them light sculptures.”
Noguchi’s concept “stood in sharp contrast to 1950s contemporary, modern, efficient lighting trends,” said Peter Barna, provost of Pratt Institute, the art and design college in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Popular lighting options of the day included track lights, adjustable desk lamps and “pole lamps with conical shades,” said Barna, a former president of an international lighting design firm.
Eventually, Noguchi developed a relationship with one family of lantern makers. The same family still produces his designs today.
“They’re all handmade, each one, individually, from molds. They’re not mass-produced,” Dixon said. “We’re now working with the third generation there, filling our orders. … Our biggest challenge is meeting the demand.”
Depending on which lamp is ordered, “you might hit the jackpot and get a lamp right away or you can wait three to six months.”
Each lamp has bamboo ribbing and standard wiring, and can accommodate incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs (45 watts for small lamps, 75 watts for large). Designs range from spheres, discs and cylinders to triangles, boxes, trapezoids, and other geometric shapes and combinations.
Most shades are white, but some are decorated in orange, green or black; a few bear abstract designs.
There are hanging lamps, as well as table lamps and floor lamps with metal legs or small black circular bases. Many appear breathtakingly elegant; others have a whimsical, futuristic look.
Noguchi Museum: www.noguchi.org
Akari can be ordered from the shop at noguchi.org/akari.html.