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Published: Sunday December 15, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday December 15, 2013 MYT 9:42:29 AM

The making of Akari lamps

Functional art: Renowned for his sculptures, Isamu Noguchi brought his sculptural sensibility to everything he fashioned, from landscapes and furniture to the iconic Akari lamps that he first designed in 1951. – Photos by SHIGEKI WATANABE

Functional art: Renowned for his sculptures, Isamu Noguchi brought his sculptural sensibility to everything he fashioned, from landscapes and furniture to the iconic Akari lamps that he first designed in 1951. – Photos by SHIGEKI WATANABE

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.

PLACE PICS 6g+6h+6i+6j+6k+6l IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER IF POSSIBLE: Bamboo ribbing is stretched across wooden moulded forms then the washi (paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree) is cut into wide or narrow strips, depending on the size and shape of the lamp, and 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.
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.

“The mayor of Gifu City at that time asked him for advice on how to revive the traditional lantern-making 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 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.

GROUP CLOSE TOGETHER PICS 6b+6c+6d+6e+6f: A photograph of Isamu Noguchi tweaking a wooden frame for one of the Akari lamps at lamp manufacturer Ozeki & Co's workshop in Gifu Prefecture, Japan.
Isamu Noguchi tweaking a wooden frame for an Akari lamp at manufacturer Ozeki & Co's workshop.

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.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Akari lighting sculptures, Ozeki company, Isamu Noguchi

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