Isamu Noguchi's Playful Side on View at SFO's International Terminal

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Two of Isamu Noguchi's Akari Floor Lamps, made of washi paper, bamboo, metal. On view now at SFO through 2018. (Photo: Courtesy of SFO Museum)

Inside SFO’s International Hall, before you get to security, there’s a visual treat you don’t need a ticket to see: two giant cases displaying Isamu Noguchi: Inside and Out.

You’ve probably seen at least one work by Isamu Noguchi, one of the most famous American sculptors of the 20th century. He made so many sculptures, installed all over the world, like the Red Cube outside the HSBC Building in Manhattan.

But Noguchi did a lot of other stuff, too. He designed The Garden of Peace outside UNESCO headquarters in Paris. He drew up sets for choreographers like Martha Graham, George Balanchine and John Cage.

He came up with the classic mid-century coffee table made for Herman Miller that features a kidney shaped piece of glass sitting on a curvy wood base.  Knockoffs of his origami-inspired, collapsible paper lamps called Akari lanterns can be spotted in living rooms across the globe.

Two Akari Floor Lamps, featured alongside the bronze plate sculpture Jack in the Box, circa 1984. (Photo: Courtesy of SFO Museum)

Noguchi loved dichotomy, juxtaposing two seemingly incompatible things together. So it makes sense that the SFO exhibit displays his origami-inspired, collapsible paper lamps -- juxtaposed against metal sculptures so thin, it looks like they could fold up just as easily as paper.


"He meant it to be a joke in a way on the kind of self-seriousness of bronze sculpture," says Dakin Hart, senior curator of The Noguchi Museum. "There's a lot of nuance and flexibility and fun in these things."

In his notes for this exhibit, Hart wrote that Noguchi used sheet products in large part because they helped bridge the supposed gap between art and design, "which he generally regarded as meaningless." He points out that Noguchi’s famous Herman Miller coffee table was designed to be collapsible, which among things, made it easy to store and ship.

Watch Hart speak at length about Noguchi’s prolific body of work:

LA-born Noguchi did have quite a few connections to California. The steel sculptures at SFO, for instance, Noguchi produced at the artists' workshop Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles. He's quoted saying "These sculptures are like short poems pertaining to California where I was born, and to the world I have known. They were made in 1982 when I had become involved with two large gardens in the Los Angeles area.”

The precursor to SFMOMA presented the first major exhibition of his work and still houses some of his iconic pieces in its permanent collection.

He volunteered to be interned in an Arizona concentration camp during World War II. Noguchi didn't have to go, based as he was in New York, but he hoped to draw attention to the plight of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast who couldn't leave the camps, as well as pressure the federal government to humanize these dehumanizing, desolate camps with Noguchi's designs.

Noguchi was a politically and socially engaged citizen, asking throughout his life how to express provocative ideas with his art. "He thought of the world as one giant sculpture," Hart says, noting Noguchi's friendship with the thinker and inventor Buckminster Fuller. "They were both interested in the underlying structures of the universe, the natural structures."

Atomic Haystack 1982–83, made of hot-dipped galvanized steel, and Akari Table Lamp Model VB13-T, 1986. (Photo: Courtesy of SFO Museum)

Hart, who’s from the Bay Area, figured Noguchi would love the idea of millions of travelers passing by, doing a double take as they encounter something both playful and beautiful, on their way to someplace else. He proposed the exhibition to the SFO Museum, the first airport museum in the country to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.

Together, Hart and museum curators selected the objects to highlight and the design team at SFO Museum took it from there.

Noguchi was the ultimate global citizen, Hart says: always traveling, especially between Japan, where his father, Yone Noguchi, came from, and the US, where his mother, Léonie Gilmour, came from. "Noguchi I would describe as a permanent voluntary exile. He always said that he never felt at home anywhere, and that made him at home everywhere," Hart says.

Isamu Noguchi: Inside and Out runs April 14, 2018 - January 06, 2019 in the Main Hall of SFO's International Terminal. More information here.