Sculptural Design

Isamu Noguchi's Cloud ottoman

Isamu Noguchi’s "Cloud" ottoman with its biomorphic, organic shape is a direct extension of the artist’s sculptural aesthetic and it effortlessly blurs distinctions between design and art. The idea of furniture as art was, at the time, a rather new concept that was fostered, at least in part, by several programs initiated by the Museum of Modern Art, New York in the 1940s to introduce good design to a wider audience. Designed in 1948 as the companion piece to a freeform sofa, this avant-garde work was produced by Herman Miller (directed by George Nelson) and marketed as art furniture to an elite clientele.

Cloud sofa and ottoman in the Milton Greene Residence; these works are now destroyed. Image from Casa Vogue, no. 31, April 2009, ppg. 122-127

Noguchi’s Cloud sofa and ottoman were only available upon special order because they are not found in Herman Miller manufacturer’s catalogs from the period. Made to order, few examples were produced and those that were exhibit slight variations in form, such as a right or left-sided seat, different contoured shapes and a fluctuating number of legs used for support. Today there are only five known examples of the Cloud sofa, one of which was destroyed along with the ottoman; these include: a sofa and ottoman belonging to Milton Greene (now destroyed); a sofa and ottoman from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. D.C. Burkes (Christies 1999); a sofa and ottoman in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum; a sofa found in the collection of the Vitra Design Museum; and a sofa in a private collection (Phillips 2002). Presumably an ottoman was produced to accompany each sofa, but not all examples have remained together. Aside from the three ottomans listed above (again, one of which was destroyed), another example was sold at auction in New York (Doyle 2003).

Cloud sofa and ottoman from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. D.C. Burkes; Cloud sofa and ottoman now in the Milwaukee Art Museum collection. Image from Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design, von Vegesack, Posch, and Eisenbrand, ppg. 122-123

Despite their rarity, Noguchi’s Cloud sofa and ottoman are among the most iconic designs from the mid-century. An exceptional work that attests to Noguchi’s mastery of function and form, this rare Cloud ottoman is one of only four examples remaining.

Isamu Noguchi 1904–1988

Isamu Noguchi was the son of Yone Noguchi, a Japanese poet, and Léonie Gilmour, an American writer. He was born in Los Angeles in 1904 but lived in Japan from the age of two until 1918 when he returned to the United States to attend school in Indiana. In 1922 Noguchi moved to New York to study pre-medicine at Columbia University. He also took night courses in sculpture with Onorio Ruotolo and soon after, he left Columbia in pursuit of a career in the arts.

In 1927 Noguchi received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a trip to Paris and the Far East. For six months in Paris, he worked in the studio of Constantin Brancusi and his own work became more abstract as Noguchi explored working with stone, wood and sheet metal. Noguchi returned to New York and in 1929 he met R. Buckminster Fuller and Martha Graham, colleagues and friends with whom he would later collaborate. In 1938 Noguchi was commissioned to complete a work for the Associated Press building in the Rockefeller Center in New York. Marking his first public sculpture, this work garnered attention and recognition for the artist in the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi became politically involved. He started Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the patriotism of Japanese Americans, and he volunteered to be placed in an Arizona internment camp where he resided for seven months. Following the war, he spent time in Japan exploring the issues highlighted by the conflict of war; the experiences culminating in sculptural works that were included in the exhibition Fourteen Americans hosted by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1946.

Noguchi traveled throughout his lifetime and was inspired by experiences, artists and techniques around the world. Never confined by material or a particular movement, Noguchi’s aesthetic accomplishments covered a broad range including sculpture, furniture and lighting design, parks, gardens, theater and more. His first retrospective was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1968. He received multiple accolades and awards during his lifetime and in 1986 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. A testament to his commitment to public spaces, in 1985 Noguchi opened The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Long Island City, New York (now known as The Noguchi Museum) and today his legacy lives on through the museum’s work. Noguchi died in 1988 at the age of eighty-four.

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