from Japanese Crafts by the Japan Craft Forum, Kodansha International, 1996.)
Noguchi conceptualised Akari as a “light sculpture” with a practical purpose. He coined the name “akari”, which means “light as illumination” in Japanese, also implying lightness as opposed to heaviness.
He wrote: “The light of Akari is like the light of the sun filtered through the paper of shoji. The harshness of electricity is thus transformed through the magic of paper back to the light of our origin – the sun – so that its warmth may continue to fill our rooms at night.”
Born in Los Angeles to an American mother, Leonie Gilmour, and a Japanese father, poet Yone Noguchi, the sculptor spent his childhood in Japan before returning to the United States for his education. Throughout his life, Noguchi shuttled between homes in America and Japan and straddled the two cultures effortlessly.
For Akari, he melded the simplicity of Japanese aesthetics with the principles of contemporary art and design.
In the biography The Life Of Isamu Noguchi (Princeton University Press, 2004), author Masayo Duus wrote that the lanterns might have reminded Noguchi of living with his mother and father in Tokyo as a toddler. On dark nights when little Isamu could not see the reflection of “Mr Moon” on the shoji (sliding, wood-framed door covered with rice paper), his father would bring in a lantern covered with translucent white paper from his study. When Isamu saw its comforting light he quietly drifted off to sleep.
Light and foldable, the Akari lamps exemplify how innovating a traditional craft helps it to survive – the lamps are modern and functional yet crafted from traditional materials and using traditional methods.
“Every spring and autumn, Noguchi would come to Ozeki and create 20 to 30 new types of Akari. In four decades, he created more than 100 types of Akari lamps,” says Shinoda.
But Noguchi was a man ahead of his time. When the Akari series was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura in 1952, the lighting sculptures puzzled even the sponsors of the exhibition. Japanese reporters thought of them as “deformed Gifu lanterns”. Their shapes didn’t resemble the Japanese notion of what a lantern looked like.
“Back in those days, Japanese usually bought colourful, decorative lanterns and not white lanterns with ‘strange’ shapes,” says Shinoda, chuckling. “Our sales of Akari lamps came mostly from American soldiers at the US Navy Base in Yokosuka who bought them as souvenirs to take home.
“But sales of Akari took off in Europe and America in the 1960s and some Gifu companies started producing and selling knockoffs,” adds Shinoda, saying that “Ozeki sued these companies but it took us 20 years to win the lawsuit. By then, the design copyright had expired.”
Today, Ozeki pays royalties to the New York-based Isamu Noguchi Foundation for the sales of its Akari lamps. The foundation controls the distribution of the lamps worldwide.
Made by hand
During the tour of Ozeki’s workshop, master craftsman Akio Suzumura demonstrated how the lanterns are made. Each Akari is handcrafted, from the making of washi paper (derived from the inner bark of the mulberry tree) to the wooden form and bamboo ribs. To make a lantern from scratch involves about 20 processes, from making the wooden frame and bamboo ribs to stretching the ribs across the frame and gluing the paper to installing the electrical components.
“Bamboo ribbing is stretched across wooden moulded forms designed by Noguchi sensei (teacher),” says Suzumura, 62. He joined Ozeki at the age of 17 and had the opportunity to work personally with Noguchi.
“The washi is cut into wide or narrow strips depending upon the size and shape of the lamp and then glued onto both sides of the framework. Once the glue has dried, the internal wooden form is disassembled and removed.”
Based on his sketches, Noguchi created the prototype lamps using polystyrene foam. Then the craftsmen shaped the wooden frames following his forms.
“He was very involved in the whole process and he learned lantern-making from the craftsmen,” says Suzumura, one of three lantern artisans in Gifu recognised as a master craftsman by the Japanese government.
“What struck me was, Noguchi was gentle, down-to-earth and had no airs about him, even though he was a famous artist,” he adds. “He made us feel like we were old friends.”
Although Ozeki assembles the lamps, the installation of electrical components is outsourced. The bamboo ribs/wire ( higo) are sourced from Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu. The company replaced the use of handmade washi with machine-produced washi about 20 years, Shinoda says.
“It would be too expensive to produce the Akari using handmade washi. Besides, the quality of machine-made washi is comparable to handmade ones these days,” he explains.
In The Life Of Isamu Noguchi, Noguchi says that “the Akari lamps are not status symbols. They are evidence of taste that does not depend on whether one is rich or poor. They add to the quality of life, and they fill any world with light.” In fact, an Akari table lamp sold for US$6.95 in an emporium in New York in 1964, according to a New York Times report. Today, the same table lamps retails at about US$100 (RM321.55) at the Noguchi Museum in New York.
Noguchi sums it up best: “It’s the one thing I’ve done out of pure love.” Akari wasn’t created for commercial reasons. However, each time he created a new Akari, he was trying to prove something – that it could be better. “So I was always working on it.”
Akari lighting sculptures at available at Space Furniture Kuala Lumpur (Intermark Mall, Jalan Tun Razak; facebook.com/SpaceKualaLumpur). Prices range from RM1,137 to RM8,390.
bamboo ribbing is stretched across wooden moulded forms then paper is glued onto both sides of the framework. Once the glue has dried and the shape is set, the internal wooden form is disassembled and removed. The lantern can be collapsed and packed flat for shipping.
In the early days, akari lamps were more popular among souvenir-hunting american sailors than the Japanese people.