Fred A. Bernstein

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Noguchi's Unknown Home

An apartment the world deserves to see

Published in Interior Design, December 1, 2004

by Fred A. Bernstein

Isamu Noguchi's influence on interior design is felt in rooms he created (the lobby of New York's 666 Fifth Avenue is still a revelation) and others that include his incomparable furniture and Akari lights. A gallery at the newly reopened Noguchi Museum in Long Island City helps secure his reputation as one of the 20th century's seminal designers. But one space essential to understanding Noguchi's contributions to interior design remains largely unknown.

Across the street from the museum-in a red-brick building that Noguchi purchased in 1961, primarily as workshop and warehouse-is his own apartment, which now serves as an office and storage area. Metal shelving units fill much of the downstairs living/dining room. Above, in what had been Noguchi's bedroom, a pair of filing cabinets and a hollow-core door form a desk used by the architect Shoji Sadao.

"I am always nowhere," the peripatetic, Japanese-American Noguchi once told a reporter. Actually, the apartment demonstrates that he had a strong idea of somewhere -- and it combined elements of East and West. In the center of the downstairs room, Noguchi set a tabletop of white plastic laminate on a chrome Cyclone base, surrounded by Rocking stools-both Noguchi designs now 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 small apartment in exchange for weekend cooking services, an arrangement made through Marvel's 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 castles, a gift from Noguchi admirer Louis Kahn.

The first of the stairs leading to Noguchi's bedroom is a boulder on which he displayed a pair of bamboo slippers. The second step, a thick slate slab, extends beyond the stairway to become a kind of coffee table on which Noguchi displayed objects that he found or made. The remaining steps are boards of salvaged old-growth pine, left over from a batch that Noguchi imported from Japan -- most of it to become pedestals for sculptures.

The upstairs bedroom, built largely by a carpenter who accompanied the timbers from Japan, 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--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 (in its syncopation) 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 foundation. Around the room, Noguchi arranged African wood carvings, several small Akaris, and his own sculptures in wood and metal.

Tellingly, he considered the bedroom important enough to include a carefully composed shot of it in his 1968 memoir, A Sculptor's World, along with photos of such public projects as his library terrace at Yale and bridge in Hiroshima. 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 on hand, though not in their original locations. Sadao, a longtime Noguchi collaborator, uses the room as an office, but has refrained from making permanent changes.

Downstairs, sculptures and prototypes are stacked on shelves and hung from pegboards. 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. As Marvel observes, the artist used a Japanese kit of parts-pine boards, shoji screens, paper tubes suggesting bamboo poles-to shape his inner sanctum, within a building made from an American kit of parts: red brick, cinderblock, and steel.

The dualities extend to Noguchi's other home, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, a spot as natural 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 deserves the same treatment, 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.