The Akari Light Sculptures, first designed in 1951 and still in production today, are objects imbued with so much personality it's hard to see them as purely functional objects. Their existence in the world is due in part to a complicated cross-cultural exchange, but it is also about our simple intuitive response to light. Their designer, Isamu Noguchi, was a chimerical creative force, difficult to define, but with a talent for form few have matched.
The full history of the Akari Light Sculptures is told in great detail online at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum website, which is a wonderful resource of information about the artist and his work. In short, the Akari were designed by the Japanese American artist and sculptor Isamu Noguchi when he was invited by the Mayor of Gifu, a town in Japan with a tradition for making paper lanterns called "cochin", to create something that would revitalise the lantern industry that had been left stagnant after World War II. The following day Noguchi had created his first two prototypes. He exchanged the traditional candle for a lightbulb and stressed the importance that the design could be packed flat then unpacked and installed at home. The name Akari was adopted, which is Japanese for ‘light’, in relation to both illumination and weight. Noguchi saw the object as a sculpture from the very beginning and he would go on to expand the family of Akari shapes in the first three years of production to over thirty models.
Noguchi went into partnership with Ozeki Jishichi Shoten (later Ozeki & Co., Ltd.), one of the traditional lantern makers of Gifu, and the project became a viable business. Various partnerships for international distribution were arranged, which would ensure the success of the Akari project over time. The lamps were exhibited all over the world and were featured widely in the press. In the U.S. they became one of the products associated with a new type of modern living that embraced both function and decoration.
Today, the lamps are still made by hand in the Ozeki workshop and produced under license for Vitra in Europe and Herman Miller in the U.S. and the Far East. In the creation of the Akari Light Sculptures, Noguchi was able to utilise an existing production method to realise his artistic dream. He once said that the idea behind the Akari was "to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living”. It seems that in the Akari project, he found a perfect fit for his talents. The construction of the lamps sees washi paper glued to a bamboo frame. This paper is produced from mulberry bark and has the key quality of elasticity, which allowed Noguchi to stretch the possibility of form – a critical element in his work.