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HIGH STYLE : '50s Lanterns for '80s Lighting

February 14, 1988|DAVID LASKER

THE DECADE of the '50s was the decade of the blob, a time when designers were fascinated with organic, biological shapes. Decorators furnished living rooms with the Saarinen Womb chair and the Eames Potato Chip chair; art lovers hung Calder mobiles from their ceilings, and even plant fanciers opted for broad-leafed philodendrons. Outdoors, meanwhile, no upscale suburban home was complete without a kidney-shaped swimming pool.

As for lighting, the immensely popular lamps of Isamu Noguchi offered the perfect finishing touch. Made of paper shades, bamboo or cane frames and spindly metal legs, they ranged in shape from familiar Japanese lantern-style globes to insect-hive and box-kite configurations that defied description; an ensemble of the lamps resembles a Martian landing party. Their unusual geometries exemplify Noguchi's East-meets-West background: He was born in Los Angeles in 1904 and studied cabinet making in Japan and sculpture in the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi, whose fondness for streamlined, abstract shapes rubbed off on Noguchi.

Notwithstanding furniture he fashioned for Knoll and Herman Miller in the '40s, Noguchi's best-known designs remain his 150-odd variations on the paper-lamp theme, dating from 1952 to 1966. The impetus was a commission from the mayor of Gifu, Japan, to revive the town's lantern industry that, says Noguchi, had become "reduced to cheap party decorations and painted silk."

The lamps, trade-named Akari (Japanese for light ), have become incredibly popular in design circles once again. They come in a variety of sizes, cost from $50 to $500 and are made of a mulberry paper much sturdier than the rice paper on less expensive imitations. Though the charming imperfections of their handmade manufacture delight folk-art collectors, Noguchi's lamps boast universal appeal. How many other '50s stereotypes look as fresh?

Akari lamps are available at Malibu Art & Design, Malibu; Industrial Revolution, Los Angeles, and Futon Design, Long Beach. Prices range from $45 to $200.

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