The History of the Noguchi Table

Designed in 1947, Isamu Noguchi’s table is a relatively simple design that effortlessly finds balance between sculpture and design. The table is composed of two identical, pivoting wooden forms placed inversely from one another and a thick, heavyweight glass top. The two inversely arranged pieces of wood are joined at a single joint and form a self-stabilizing tripod support for the organic, ovular glass top. In addition, the wooden forms are completely smooth and feature the wood’s natural grain. The simple, yet effective design of the table introduces an idea of sculpture to a seemingly everyday object. Bridging a gap between design and sculpture, the table brought suggestions of natural form into homes and offices all over the world.

The Noguchi table’s fascinating history, unique design, and affiliation with furniture giant Herman Miller, Inc. has resulted in the piece becoming an icon of modernity deeply embedded in 20th century design history.

History: A Tale of Design Revenge

The history of Noguchi’s table is a fascinating tale entrenched with themes of war, internment, and revenge. Following the Pearl Harbor attacks by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, the United States officially entered World War II. After entering into the war, the United States took action against its own citizens of Japanese descent when Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into effect Executive Order 9066. This order forced over 100,000 Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. Noguchi had no obligation to relocate to the camps being that he lived on the east coast; however, being a mixed-race American with roots in Japan and Los Angeles, he strongly identified with the with the plight of the interned Japanese-Americans. Noguchi made it his mission to improve the living conditions of the interned Japanese-Americans by entering the camps to teach arts and crafts as he arranged with a government official. Despite the designer’s good intentions, life inside of the camps was much different from what he had expected. His attempts at designing programing in addition to camp amenities were stifled and ignored.

As a voluntarily interned camp resident, Noguchi had the privilege of having newspapers and magazines delivered to the camp. In an advertisement in one of such publications, the designer was shocked to see an advertisement for English furniture and interior designer Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings that featured a table design strikingly similar to one of his own that he had prototyped at an earlier time.

The original design dated back to 1939 when Noguchi created a table for the President of the Museum of Modern Art, A. Conger Goodyear. In the year following, the designer made a simplified version of his design for Terence Harold Robsjohn-Gibbings, the designer whose advertisement Noguchi encountered in the camp. He made the furniture designer a small plastic model of the table but had heard nothing more prior to his time in the internment camp. When he left the internment camp in November 1942, Noguchi remonstrated Robsjohn-Gibbings about his plagiarism; however, he responded saying that “anybody could make a three-legged table.” According to Noguchi himself: “In revenge, I made my own variant of my own table.”

Noguchi’s Design Tendencies and Herman Miller, Inc.

Noguchi approached his work with the ideology that “everything is sculpture.” In his lifetime’s work, he designed a wide array of works ranging from furniture to stage sets to gardens and plazas. In his design process, Noguchi was highly interested in integrating sculpture into everyday life.  His table is a perfect representation of this mission. The table’s organic form bridged the gap between design and sculpture. Composed of organic forms and smooth lines, the table brought natural form into the modern home. Noguchi’s idea of art being infused into the everyday was furthered by the relative ease of mass manufacturing the table. In 1947, Herman Miller, Inc. began producing and retailing Noguchi’s table. The table’s functional and simple design of only three parts made mass production a breeze. In addition, because the table is only made of three distinct parts, it is extremely easy to assemble. In fact, Herman Miller, Inc. originally marketed the table as “knockdown furniture,” as it could be shipped unassembled and easily assembled at its final location.

A Symbol of Modernity

The Noguchi table also acts as a strong representational piece of modern design and an especially unique take on mid-century modern furniture design. For instance, the table makes no effort to conceal any part of its design. Each component that makes up its final form is displayed without disguise. In addition, the materials used to construct the table are true to themselves and do not seek to disguise their natural appearance. The table also acts as a study in simplicity of form - each of the three pieces of the table possess no ornamentation or decorative elements. This simplicity of form allows for the sculptural quality of the object to be transmitted clearly and universally. Ultimately, the design manages to retain its simplicity and function while possessing sculptural qualities. This interplay between sculpture and design sets the table apart from its mid-century modern counterparts.


Despite designing a wide array of public work, furniture, stage sets, and more, Noguchi believed that the table was his one and only true success. The table successfully created a marriage between sculpture and design in a clean, honest, and simple form while fulfilling the designer’s mission of integrating sculpture into everyday life. The Noguchi table can still be purchased as Herman Miller, Inc. continues to produce and retail the table. The iconic design can also be found in museum collections in addition to homes and offices all around the world.

Ultimately, Isamu Noguchi’s table that came to life as the result of circumstances revolving around war, internment, and revenge. It is uplifting to know that circumstances so bleak can result in a design of such harmony and beauty.

Images via Herman Miller, Inc. 

Damian M.

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