The making of
One of most iconic lamps of the 20th century, the akari light sculptures have been handcrafted by lantern artisans in Japan since 1951. We travel into the heart of the country to find out what goes into the making of this light gem.
IF knockoffs are proof of an object’s iconic status, the Akari light sculptures have definitely earned their stature. Crafted from bamboo ribs and washi (mulberry bark paper) and lighted with electric bulbs, these delicate “lanterns” have spawned many imitators since their debut in 1951.
A cult favourite among design buffs, the Akari comes in a mélange of shapes - from geometric and biomorphic forms to classic spheres, and sizes. Today, they are common fixtures in modern home decor styles. You would have spotted the Akari in Tony Star’s bedroom in Iron Man 3 movie or the office of Dr Gregory House in TV series House.
Marrying form and function, the Akari was conceptualised by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988). In the art world, Noguchi is a master sculptor and one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Aside from the vast numbers of his sculptures in private and museum collections worldwide and in New York’s Noguchi Museum, the versatile artist’s notable works include his sculpture gardens at Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) headquarters in Paris and the Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan. In the industrial design sphere, his Akari lamps, coffee table (1944) and rocking stools (1954) for design giants like Vitra and Herman Miller are epochal mid-century pieces.
Inevitably, Noguchi applied his sculptural sensibility to everything he designed, whether it was lighting, furniture, playgrounds or even stage sets.
The home of Akari
The story of Akari began when Noguchi visited Gifu City, about 270km west of Tokyo, to see cormorant fishing on the Nagara River. Hemmed in by mountains, Gifu Prefecture is known for its traditional crafts: the making of chôchin (lanterns), wagasa (traditional umbrellas), uchiwa (bamboo fans) and woodcraft.
“The mayor of Gifu City at that time asked him for advice on how to revive the traditional lanternmaking industry,” says Chikahiro Shinoda, the director of Ozeki & Co Ltd, the Gifu-based lantern manufacturer that has been producing Akari lamps for 62 years now.
Founded in 1891, Ozeki produces handcrafted lanterns and lighting devices. The Akari series makes up only 15% of its production while the company’s main revenue comes from Obon (Festival of the Dead) and decorative lanterns. Ozeki is also purveyor of lanterns for the Japanese imperial household.
Hako chôchin or the first prototype of the portable lantern – made of narrow strips of bamboo covered with paper – was introduced in Japan at the end of the 16th century. During the peaceful Edo period (1600-1868), lower-ranking samurai made lanterns and wagasa to make ends meet. But with the advent of electricity and gas in the late 19th century in Japan, demand for lanterns dwindled. (Information
a prototype of the wooden frame and polystyrene foam used to make an akari light sculpture.