Isamu Noguchi, the genius of the Akari lamp

By Sabine Maida

Posted on June 18, 2021 at 4:00 p.m., updated yesterday at 4:31 p.m.

A priori, it’s a cheap tinker that we’ve always known: an ultralight paper globe stretched at both ends by a metal rod. Many had it in their first apartment or in their nursery, in white, pink, sky blue or even orange, in the 1970s. Most often, it was used to hide a light bulb that hung from the ceiling and to dim the light at a lower cost. Sooner or later it ended up flattened and torn at the bottom of a trash can, replaced without remorse by a more ambitious fixture.

In contrast to this miserable fate, the Japanese paper Akari lamp designed by the Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), who inspired the ball pendant light adopted by countless households around the world, makes the community of design enthusiasts fantasize. And 2021, which marks the 70th anniversary of its first appearance, should confirm its status as a cult object, through several celebrations orchestrated by the Noguchi Foundation (which is working on a highly anticipated first catalog raisonné) as well as by independent galleries.

A demiurge with an ogre’s appetite

In the eyes of connoisseurs, Akari (which can be translated from Japanese as “light combined with lightness”) is more a work of art than a lighting solution. We should also say “the Akari”, like the initiates, because, in fact of a ball suspended from the ceiling, it is a question of a minimum of 240 variations. Floor lamps, suspensions, wall lights, table lamps or light columns, in multiple shapes and sizes, in plain or printed paper… Noguchi declined the principle until he was thirsty, between 1951 and 1988 – until his death.

Read also One day, an object: Akari

“It is the work of a lifetime, like Monet and his water lilies”, says Thibaut Varaillon, design researcher and author of Akari, the paths of light, published as part of an exhibition of the same name visible from June 25 to July 23 at the Wa Design Gallery, in Paris, which presents 70 vintage models stamped with the original ideogram, consisting of a sun and a crescent of red moon (the signature of the creator having been added after his death).

Akari lamp

Demiurge with an ogre appetite, combining disciplines such as materials, Isamu Noguchi remains little known to the general public. Yet some of his achievements have not been spared by mass distribution and plagiarism – his IN50 coffee table, with triangular glass top and solid wood base, is a perfect example. “Japanese designers have been slow to come out of the shadows, including in Japan, specifies Christophe Magnan, founder of the Wa Design Gallery and collector of Akari lamps since the 1990s. Noguchi, American by his mother, is especially revered in the United States. In New York, its museum is a must. “

You have 77.57% of this article to read. The rest is for subscribers only.