An Ode to the Noguchi Akari Lamp, a Mid-Century Lighting Grail for the Ages

The work of the late Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi can be categorized in extremes. While the influential artist is known for his dense, large-scale outdoor sculptures, his most enduring design is a symbol of weightlessness: the Akari paper lanterns. Delicate and airy and made initially of mulberry-bark paper, these light sculptures became Noguchi’s best-known work, and hold a place in contemporary design akin to an Eames shell chair or George Nelson’s platform bench. Think of it as the Air Force 1 of lamps — a forever classic that looks just as good now as it did decades ago.

Beloved fashion designer Raf Simons told Architectural Digest that Noguchi’s lamps are “gentle and modest but really a stroke of genius.” When The Wall Street Journal ran a feature on Simons’ Antwerp apartment, it revealed a living room anchored by Pierre Jeanneret furniture, a Picasso ceramic, and an Isamu Noguchi paper light. The artist and frequent Nike collaborator Tom Sachs released a limited-edition light sculpture in partnership with New York’s Noguchi Museum, which was re-released late last year. For a joint installation during New York Design Week, Noguchi’s lanterns were paired with sculptures from Robert Stadler, a contemporary designer who has worked with Dior and Hermès. The Japanese shades are ubiquitously knocked off and sold by major retailers across the board. If you’re not breaking the bank on an original, you can easily go with an “homage,” like this round paper table lamp from Urban Outfitters or a pendant lampshade from IKEA — both cost less than a movie ticket.

Born in 1904, Noguchi was an interdisciplinary polymath, weaving in and out of disciplines with a one-of-one quality, not unlike the do-it-all creative directors of today. He studied medicine, then art, and won the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship at just 23 years old. A partnership with the American furniture manufacturer Herman Miller kickstarted his journey from artist to industrial designer. In 1947, the company produced his glass-topped curved coffee table — another, heavier Noguchi classic — propelling his work into households across the country.

On a trip to Japan in 1950, he visited the city of Gifu, where the introduction of electric lighting was making the traditional candle-lit paper lantern obsolete. The mayor asked Noguchi to help revive this tradition; his solution was to modernize the paper lanterns, reworking the design to be powered by electricity instead of candles. With Noguchi’s association, and his harmonious blend of traditional Japanese craft and sharp aesthetics, the lamps had an international appeal — one that mirrored the international art world’s adaptation of zen aesthetics in minimalism.

Nearly seven decades later, the Akari light sculptures are still handmade by the original manufacturer in Gifu. They can be purchased directly from The Noguchi Museum Shop, and the Museum of Modern Art sells them, too. The prices range from $175 to $1,800, in sizes small enough for a tabletop to large enough to command a ceiling, and their shapes range from the classic spherical shape to amoeba-esque blobs and longer silhouettes look like modernist caterpillars.

These paper lanterns remind even a design novice that proper lighting can really achieve decor miracles. It is almost surefire that an Akari lamp will look great in any given space. When hung from a ceiling, the piece is ample yet airy enough to make a statement without being obnoxious. A tabletop light placed in the corner will illuminate a room without distracting from any bold furniture or whatever artwork is on the walls. One next to your bed can add a soothing and inviting glow to your nighttime routine.

Having been driven to spending time inside in a way we never have before, it is important to reconsider our homes and the magic of soft lighting. Warm white is more relaxing for the eyes; it softens skin tones and reduces imperfections. The harsh fluorescence of cool LED white possesses more of a biting edge. It can cast sharp notice on our crooked walls and wobbly furniture, shortcomings that feel amplified under the bright judgment of incandescence. Whereas a softer light, one artfully dulled by washi paper, can feel like a warm hug. Ask anyone who owns an Akari light sculpture: Once you’ve brought the delicate glow into your home, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

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