Isamu Noguchi was born to an unwed mother in Los Angeles, CA, in 1904. The two later traveled to Tokyo, Japan, to be near Isamu’s father. Isamu was formally named at the age of two. “Isamu” is a Japanese word for “courage”.
Unfortunately, the child’s parents split up soon afterward. Isamu and his mother traveled throughout Japan before they finally made their home in Chigasaki in 1912. During this time, the family built their own house and welcomed Isamu’s half-sister. Isamu’s mother
always encouraged his artistic ability, and even put him in charge of the house-building project to boost his confidence and creativity. Five years later, the family settled in Yokohama.
The next year, Isamu returned to the United States to attend an international school in Rolling Plains, Indiana. He graduated from high school in 1922 under the name “Sam Gilmour” – an Americanized version of his given name paired with his mother’s surname. After graduation, Isamu was accepted at Columbia University’s School of Medicine.
At the urging of his mother and friends, Isamu began to take art classes. He was a natural, and exhibited his first works a mere three months after he began sculpting. It didn’t take long for Isamu to realize that he was a sculptor through and through. No medical degree, regardless of its prestige, could satisfy his need to create. He withdrew from Columbia and changed his surname from Gilmour to Noguchi.
Isamu opened his own art studio and began to produce artistic portrait busts and other commissioned pieces. He was awarded the Logan Medal of the Arts during this time. Three years after his withdrawal from medical school, Isamu applied for and won a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to study abroad in Paris, France. There he assisted the famous Romanian sculptor, Constantin Brancusi.
Isamu settled down in New York during the 1930’s. There, he was popular in social circles and sought after for his sculptures. He began designing stage sets for choreographer Martha Graham, and would continue to do so for thirty years. During and after World War II, Isamu championed the civil rights of Japanese-Americans. He also continued to sculpt, bringing the tranquil style of Kyoto’s Buddhist stone gardens to the world.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Isamu partnered with Herman Miller and Knoll Associates to produce furniture. His pieces from this era have been called “organic” and “curvily sculpted”. The lines of his seats and tables are fluid, yet clean – reminiscent of Japanese interior design. He favored simple pieces that appeared symmetrical, or asymmetrical styles with unexpected accents. For example, Isamu designed a three-legged table. Two of the legs are steel outlines, while the third is solid wood. The result is whimsical and exciting. Besides furniture, Isamu also found success with foldable light sculptures made from micro-gami paper.
Isamu Noguchi died in New York in 1988. His public sculptures can be viewed in areas as diverse as Jerusalem, Michigan, Munich, Tokyo, India, New York, and many other locations all over the world.