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The Secret History Of The Noguchi Table

How the man behind one of the most famous tables of the 20th century survived internment and design theft to create a classic.

The Secret History Of The Noguchi Table
[Top photo: Fernando Bengoechea/Beateworks/Corbis]

First released by Herman Miller in 1948, the famed Noguchi Table may look like it was pulled through a wormhole from a showroom on an alien world, but it was actually designed by a man: Isamu Noguchi. The son of a Japanese poet and an American writer, and one-time lover of Frida Kahlo, Noguchi was an influential sculptor who channeled his fascination with surrealism and zen gardens into beautiful furniture designs. But the Noguchi Table, with its organic, physics-defying shape, is probably his most iconic design.

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Yet the Noguchi Coffee Table almost didn’t happen, as this 12-minute video essay by filmmaker Eve Goldberg shows. In fact, Noguchi might not have created his most recognizable design at all if not for two things: outright design theft by a famous contemporary furniture maker, and his own (unusual) imprisonment during World War II in a Japanese internment camp.

The story of the Noguchi Table begins in 1939, when Noguchi designed a rosewood and glass table for A. Conger Goodyear, the president of the Museum of Modern Art. Although a different shape than the Noguchi Table, it did have two things in common with the 1948 version: it had a glass top, and it was balanced on three legs. Shortly afterward, Noguchi (who was working on an advertisement with Georgia O’Keefe at the time) fielded a meeting with designer T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, the British architect and furniture designer. Robsjohn-Gibbings asked Noguchi to pitch a table design to his company. Using his design for Goodyear’s table as a basis, Noguchi mocked up a plastic model of his proposed table, and sent it off to Robsjohn-Gibbings in the hopes of a commission. Noguchi never heard back, and busy with other projects, quickly forgot about it.

Chris Felver/Getty Images

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States officially into World War II. Long before America brought the fight to Japan, though, it took out its pent-up rage on its own citizens. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering Japanese-Americans on the West Coast of the United States to pack a small amount of their belongings and relocate to internment camps.

Noguchi was exempt. A Japanese-American living on the East Coast, Noguchi had no obligation to relocate to the camps. Yet as a mixed-race American who had grown up in both Los Angeles and Japan, Noguchi strongly associated with the plight of the Japanese-Americans interned in the camps. Noguchi decided that he was going to try to improve conditions for interned Japanese-Americans by going inside the system. He met John Collier, the head of the National Office of Indian Affairs, who invited Noguchi to come live in a new camp being built on a reservation in Arizona and teach arts and crafts. Noguchi accepted.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Once interned in the camps, though, Noguchi was discouraged. His support from Collier almost immediately disappeared, and the promised art materials never arrived. Camp administrators ignored a series of designs Noguchi made to try to improve conditions at the camp by introducing amenities such as swimming pools and gardens. Even his fellow prisoners hated him, resenting Noguchi for his private quarters, one of the few perks Noguchi had been promised at the camp for voluntarily interning himself.

Another perk: He was allowed to have outside magazines and newspapers delivered to him in the camp. And it was in the pages of one of these magazines that Noguchi discovered an ad for a table he recognized: the same one he had pitched to Robsjohn-Gibbings. It was now being mass-produced and sold to the public, and Noguchi wasn’t getting a dime. Noguchi wrote to Robsjohn-Gibbings, demanding compensation. The response? Get bent.

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Noguchi had enough. He applied to camp officials for release, arguing that since he had voluntarily interned himself, he could leave any time. Camp officials disagreed, citing “suspicious activity.” In September 1942, Noguchi wrote to Collier, asking his one-time sponsor to help free him from the camp where he had voluntarily consigned himself.

Loomis Dean/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Finally, on November 12, 1942, Noguchi was granted a short-term furlough and, later, permanent leave. Noguchi left the camp gates, got in his car, and drove across the desert straight back to New York, never once looking back. Noguchi got to work channeling his frustration at the hands of the U.S. government and the perfidious Robsjohn-Gibbings by designing what was, perhaps, the ultimate revenge: the creation of an iconic design that not only made Robsjohn-Gibbings’s stolen table irrelevant, but which would go on to prove just how important Japanese-Americans were to the cultural history of this country.

[h/t: Eve Goldberg]