Poetry in Stone: Furniture as Sculpture
Deborah A. Goldberg, Ph.D.
Isamu Noguchi’s recently rediscovered pink Georgia marble dining table, circa 1948-49, for fashion photographer Milton H. Greene and his first wife, Evelyn (née Franklin), exemplifies his pivotal role in breaking the boundaries of design by conceiving of his utilitarian objects as sculpture. Its Surrealist-inspired biomorphism and egg shape correspond to both his contemporary artwork and several of his table designs. Noguchi would use its three materials: marble, wood, and aluminum in a range of sculpture and design-related objects.
Milton and Evelyn Greene, at the ages of 26 and 23 years old, respectively, were quite precocious when they commissioned the 44 year-old Noguchi in 1948 to design the table as well as a one-of-a kind “free-form” sofa and ottoman (known in recent years as the Cloud sofa and Cloud ottoman) for the living area of their home in Weston, Connecticut. Greene recognized the furniture’s unique design, using the three pieces in fashion photo shoots. For example, he took one of his most iconic photographs, showing actress Marlene Dietrich sitting on the sofa in a studio setting for Life in 1952. Her famous long legs (which were insured by her studio) dominate the composition, with the curved edge of the sofa complementing her bent head and knee. Such photographs add a glamorous aura to the work. In fact, Greene’s close friend and business-partner, actress Marilyn Monroe (they had formed Marilyn Monroe Productions in January 1955) lived with him and his second wife Amy and their son Joshua for just over two years, using these objects on a daily basis. She sat on the ottoman for a press photograph at the time of a CBS interview with the Greenes for Edward R. Murrow in April of 1955.
One would expect a dining table to have four legs, but Noguchi opted for three—all asymmetrically placed, slightly different, and hand-carved—attached to a plywood support covered by an organic piece of rubber on the underside of the marble. The Greene table is a larger version of Noguchi’s marble-topped coffee table, also with three legs, that he designed in 1945 for Herman Miller, and manufactured between circa 1947 and 1949. Only six examples are known of the coffee table, each slightly different in terms of measurements and the color of the marble and wood.
The dining table most closely resembles the prototype marble-topped coffee table that Noguchi designed for his sister Ailes Gilmour Spinden, in having one foot ending in a ball and two that are more tapered. Noguchi frequently used the tripod format in other design projects, as in the Three-legged Dinette or Rudder Table (1944), Rudder Stools (1944), the Rudder Coffee Table (c. 1948), his Burden dining table (1946–48), his later prototype hexagonal table for the ALCOA Forecast Program of 1957 (also known as the Prismatic table), his earliest lamp design of 1944, and his later ceramics.
Like the coffee tables, the Greene table has an asymmetrical hole in the top that holds a recessed spun aluminum bowl for a plant or floral arrangement. With handles on each side, this large bowl can be inserted into the table by spinning it into place with a slot-and-turn mechanism, without the need for any fasteners. Noguchi would use a similar mode of assembly for the star base of one of his earliest Akari lamps of the 1950s. Under the table, the bowl fits into the center of three pieces of wood that form a triangle, one of the artist’s favorite shapes. While the hole in the coffee tables is more asymmetrically placed, the hole in the Greene table is just slightly off-center.
Noguchi, who was half-Japanese, often mixed Japanese aesthetics with modernist ideas. Uncharacteristically low for a dining room table, at 26 inches in height, the Greene table is about seven inches taller than the coffee tables. Was Noguchi creating a hybrid Western/Eastern version of the chabudai, a short legged-table used in traditional Japanese homes? The simple and elegant design of this table cannot be fully appreciated in reproduction. From a bird’s eye view and when viewed from the side at multiple angles, the table appears to dramatically balance on one leg, with its top recalling traditional Japanese cantilevered roofs.
As well, one can compare the stance of the dining table’s feet to the placement of the three wheels on R. Buckminster Fuller’s 4D Transport or Dymaxion Car, from 1933, for which Noguchi made several plaster models during its design stage, or even to the positioning of the wheels on a later World War II fighter jet. In fact, Fuller insisted that his car was not a car at all: “I knew everybody would call it a car. It was the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin-orientable-jet-stilts flying device.” The table also shares both the streamlining of these vehicles and of Constantin Brancusi’s asymmetrical blue-gray marble Fish, 1930. It looks like Noguchi flipped Brancusi’s sculpture on its side and altered its contours (He had been the apprentice to the Romanian sculptor in Paris in 1927). Noguchi might have also been considering Brancusi’s more recent sculpture, Flying Turtle, of 1940–45. For both Noguchi and Brancusi, the beauty of the abstract patterns of the striated marble of their works becomes the focal point. The streamlined forms and marble patterns in Brancusi’s works contribute a sense of speed to each composition. Noguchi’s table achieves a sense of weightlessness akin to the way Brancusi balanced his sculptures on pedestals.
The Greene table belongs to a small group of the artist’s one-of-a-kind and site-specific furniture that he made for individual collectors, several only recently more-fully documented. The first of these commissioned design objects is a stack-laminated rosewood and Herculite plate glass dining room table from 1939 for A. Conger Goodyear, the first president of the Museum of Modern Art and a trustee. Noguchi designed it specifically for an area in front of a large Herculite floor-to-ceiling window of Goodyear’s modernist home, built by Edward Durrell Stone in Old Westbury, Long Island. In 1941, Noguchi designed a laminated primavera wood side table, with a large hole in its composition for the other architect of the Museum, Philip L. Goodwin, for his duplex penthouse at 69th Street and Fifth Avenue. William A. M. Burden, a Trustee of the Museum, and his wife Margaret Livingston Partridge Burden commissioned a number of objects between 1946 and 1948 by Noguchi for their summer seaside residence designed by Wallace K. Harrison in Northeast Harbor, Maine. These included a dining room table, a set of dining chairs, andirons for two fireplaces, and a built-in desk for the master bedroom. Contemporary with the Greene commission, Noguchi designed several objects for the living room of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Dretzin’s summer home in Chappaqua, New York, built by the modernist architect Sidney Katz. These included a low coffee table in black Belgian or York fossil marble; a dining room table in red-brown African cocobolo wood, which also featured an inserted planter; and a Lunar ceiling light fixture.
Like these projects, the Greene table related to a larger design ensemble for their circa 150-year-old rural home on 11 acres, which Milton converted from a barn and stable. In both black and white and color film, Greene photographed Noguchi’s table, sofa and ottoman, upholstered in black fabric, in situ. Greene documented Noguchi planning, designing, and at work on these items in September 1948, providing a rare glimpse into the artistic process and the close friendship of the photographer and sculptor. Earlier in the year, in February, Greene also photographed Noguchi at work and with his sculpture in the backyard of his studio (as well as the sculpture alone inside the studio) at 33 MacDougal Alley in Manhattan’s West Village. According to Joshua Greene: “They liked each other very much. Noguchi loved Milton’s photography. They liked each other’s company.” Noguchi was “aware of the house” and “designing with the interior in mind.” Greene took several photographs of Noguchi at his home, kneeling down to sketch on a large roll of paper, sitting with two unidentified women (perhaps models), at a rectangular table that Greene used before the creation of Noguchi’s table, and Noguchi carving and using a two-handled rasp to plane the wooden fang-like feet of his ottoman. In a letter, Noguchi wrote that Greene gave him a Leica camera "in exchange for the designing of some furniture for him."
Greene made several changes to his house, including adding a studio, skylights, and tall windows, and tearing out about forty layers of wallpaper to reveal the building’s original woodwork and white plaster. With the assistance of another close friend and neighbor, the renowned fashion illustrator, and business partner Joe Eula, Greene gutted and redesigned the house (Eula shared a studio with Greene in New York City). The table, sofa, and ottoman were installed in a loft-like living area that had a low pile gray wall-to-wall carpet, and the latter two objects were placed in front of a large fireplace surrounded by irregularly placed stones. In a 1955 CBS publicity photograph Marilyn Monroe sits on the ottoman in front of the sofa, within view of the marble table in the right foreground. Greene’s photographs show the table surrounded by molded plywood lounge chairs (1949) by Charles and Ray Eames, who also worked with Herman Miller. The house and Greene’s New York studio were later decorated with Noguchi’s Akari lamps. Greene placed Noguchi’s table in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a backyard garden that Noguchi designed with Eula’s help in a narrow area running along the entire length of the house alongside a rocky cliff. Only having about 30 feet to work with, from the house to the edge of the cliff, Noguchi placed earth, grass, and planters within the crevices of a rocky terrain, which was an oblong-trapezoid shape. Thus the stone table with its inserted planter rhymed with the exterior setting. This garden was one of Noguchi’s first realized landscape designs—a genre he would explore more fully later in his career.
In May 1949, in a brief article titled “Poetic Rocks,” American Artist magazine described the sofa and ottoman as “free-form”: “…(which perhaps resembles an elongated tongue more than anything else) and its kidney-shaped companion piece are both made of foam rubber over no-sag springs and covered with wool tweed.” The author continued to describe how Noguchi: “visualizes these upholstered pieces as ‘rocks that roll around, conform to your shape, can be sat in from more than one angle.’ Representatives for the manufacturers, the Herman Miller Furniture Company, immediately add the reassuring information that ‘Of course they are actually quite comfortable…and the rock analogy is poetic rather than literal.’”
Their symbolism thus bridged exterior and interior, creating a formal harmony—extending Noguchi’s rock garden into the home, and providing a complement to the equally organic and asymmetrical marble table, and the stone wall surrounding the fireplace. Greene photographed Noguchi lounging on the sofa in his home, just as he portrayed several models and Dietrich reclining on either the sofa or table.
Noguchi brought sculptural ideas to furniture design, and with related sculpture that he made of the same stone, he introduced architectural and design ideas. Prior to making the table for the Greenes, Noguchi used three legs and the same Georgia marble for two interlocking sculptures—Kouros, of 1945, and Avatar, 1947, also photographed by Greene at Noguchi’s studio in New York. He cut the architectural marble slabs for these sculptures with an electric saw. While the Greene table is best appreciated from a bird’s-eye view, these totemic works are meant to be encountered frontally. Like his table, Noguchi also pierced his Kouros, giving it six holes or open areas, as in the upper right shoulder. The simple method of locking the dining table’s aluminum bowl into place complements the way these sculptures can be put together through gravity alone.
How did the dining room table commission come to be? According to Greene’s son Joshua, Noguchi was a close friend of Greene’s first wife Evelyn,  a model. In 1949, she and Greene divorced, and two years later she married fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Amy Franco, a model who had been engaged to Avedon, would marry Greene in 1953. Noguchi often associated with individuals in the fashion world, so the connection makes sense. Most likely the Greenes met Noguchi through Eliot Elisofon, a staff photographer for Life magazine, who took numerous photographs of Noguchi and his work in this decade, and was friends with Noguchi since the 1930s. At the age of 15, Greene first worked with Elisofon, and eventually became his assistant at Life. Elisofon owned Noguchi’s biomorphic table top sculpture, Untitled, from c. 1944, which is composed of a form cut from the same Georgia marble as Greene’s table, which intersects a slab of grayish white marble, another material Noguchi used for his coffee tables. Noguchi also designed a similar dining table for Elisofon, which his daughter Elin describes as being large and egg-shaped, made all of wood, with three legs.
On September 25, 1946, in photographing Noguchi’s work as newly installed in the Museum of Modern Art’s Fourteen Americans exhibition for Life magazine, Eliot Elisofon paid particular attention to the artist’s largest sculpture on display, Kouros, including Noguchi cleverly in the images. He photographed Noguchi in profile, resting his chin on the edge of the sculpture, so that that the sculptor joins the art form. He also portrayed Kouros looming in the foreground, with the five-foot, five-inch Noguchi leaning against the wall in the distance, dwarfed by the nine-foot figural sculpture.
Greene’s photographs of the table and the sofa and ottoman, most never previously published, add a whole other dimension to appreciating Noguchi’s design. Like Elisofon, Greene similarly played with scale in photographing himself and others in conjunction with his dining room table. In a self-portrait, he shows himself sitting on one of the Eames chairs pulled up to the table. Appearing pensive, Greene rests his head in his hand. He set up the camera angle from a low vantage point so that he seems like a child at a play table—underscored by the table’s low height, the equally low chairs, and his own small stature. In November 1951, Bruce Downes, in Popular Photography magazine, in a profile about Greene, stated: “All this charm is wrapped up in a rather smallish package. Greene is short, looks a little like comedian Jerry Lewis and is somewhat as unpredictable…All this experience is surprising, for Greene, at 29, still looks like a coltish youngster.”
Greene staged playful fashion shoots at his home with models posed on the furniture. In several of the photographs, models sit or recline on the table, upending its purpose, and treating it as a stool, sofa, or bed. One of Greene’s most famous images is his photograph of model Katherine Cassidy stretched out on a cot, published in Life magazine in 1950. With Noguchi’s table, he had a much more upscale and artistically crafted perch for his models, treating the cold marble as he would an upholstered surface.
These photographs betray a Surrealist sensibility. In September 1950, from an aerial view, Greene photographed model Pat Donavon reclining in flapper-style (with a haircut resembling that of actress Louise Brooks), supported by her arm, with her feet dangling off the table’s edge. She holds a cigarette holder in her right hand and her left hand grazes the interior surface of the aluminum insert, filled with what look like pebbles. Also, in September 1950, a model posed like a sophisticated goddess in a classical style dress and armlet on Noguchi’s sofa, photographed by Greene from above and behind and up close, in profile. In another picture by Greene, the model Maggie McNamara looks elfin, sitting on top of the table, which has been transformed into a magic carpet, lily pad, or pool of water. She crosses her legs beneath the billowing fabric of her skirt, whose abstract geometric pattern is reflected in the shiny marble. Greene allowed his models to be themselves. Downes wrote: “Like most first rate photographers he is a first rate director, which means that he does not pose his models but knows how to get them to behave in front of his camera as if they were doing what comes naturally. The big secret, and one that is more important than any other a photographer can have, is that Greene really knows how to relax his models and put them in a happy, joyous mood….”
Greene’s appropriation of the table as a prop builds on Noguchi’s already established collaboration with leading choreographers, in which he would design dance sets, furniture, and costumes. In March 1951, for Charm magazine, Greene portrayed Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, the world’s first supermodel, like a mermaid—reclining, preening on, stretching out across, and sitting on the marble table, with no chair in sight. A trained dancer and sculptor herself, Fonssagrives-Penn showcases her grace and becomes part of the sculptural beauty of the table. Rather than using the table’s built-in planter, Greene had two flower arrangements placed on top. In one photo, his model sits upright on the edge, and he photographed the table so that it appears to float and not have legs. In several of the photographs, the table is either set in front of the tall windows and diaphanous curtains of the dining area of his home, with Fonssagrives-Penn framed by its angularity, as in a photograph with her arm bent back where the window frames intersect. In others, she is shown against the stripped down white plaster wall, with its cross beam creating a horizontal just below the top border. Just a year earlier, Fonssagrives’ husband Irving Penn had taken several photographs of her in Paris, emphasizing her lithe form, but with her standing upright, as in Rochas Mermaid Dress, 1950.
One of Greene’s color photographs shows Noguchi’s table set for a meal, with modernist tableware, including white porcelain dishes, cups, saucers, and egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers, a glass cruet filled with milk, a glass-covered container for sugar, and wooden bowls—with a view of the garden through the open door nearby. It is a table setting worthy of Irving Penn, known for his modernist color still life photography of 1947.
Greene could portray adults joyfully acting like children. In March 1949, he photographed an amused Noguchi getting down beneath the table and leaning back and supported by his hands so that he could poke his head through the circular hole of the table. In transforming the table into play sculpture, he foreshadowed something that Noguchi would do with the design of his own playground equipment, as in Octetra (1968). In a 1969 photograph, Noguchi stuck his torso through one of the circular openings of this object and would dramatically pose behind the hole of his imposing circular granite sculpture, Black Sun (1969). Noguchi featured the hole or the circle throughout his oeuvre. As in his earlier image of Noguchi, in 1955 Greene also captured a laughing Marilyn Monroe being silly, while poking her head through a circular inflatable pool float. In a swimming pool in Connecticut, she sits on an inflatable sea horse float, while holding up a drink.
The Greene table demonstrates the fluidity in Noguchi’s work between design and sculpture. In his autobiography, Noguchi wrote: “It is clear that I often craved to bring sculpture into a more direct involvement with the common experience of living. At such times I felt there must be a more direct way of contact than the remote one of art.” What better way to do this than to design a sculptural dining table? Milton Greene cleverly extended this notion by using Noguchi’s table to enliven his fashion photography.
 The location is unknown for the latter two objects, which were sold by the family at auction. Email to author from Joshua Greene, son of Milton Greene, April 17, 2018. There are five known examples of this set. See “Sculptural Design,” Wright, Design, December 12, 2013, Lot 120, www.wright20.com.
 He also took a photograph of her reclining on the sofa.
 Susan Stamberg, “Gallery Gives Movie Star Marlene Dietrich The Big-Picture Treatment,” NPR (June 19, 2017), www.npr.org.
 Conversation with Joshua Greene, April 11, 2018.
 See the Noguchi Museum catalogue raisonné (catalogue.noguchi.org).
 See Goldberg, “Isamu Noguchi: Visionary Designer and ‘World Citizen’,” in Isamu Noguchi, Patent Holder: Designing the World of Tomorrow (Queens, NY: St. John’s University, Dr. M. T. Geoffrey Yeh Art Gallery, in collaboration with The Isamu Noguchi Museum, 2015), 23-26.
 The bamboo collar on the bottom of the lamp has a slot that gets progressively narrower. Conversation with Dakin Hart, Senior Curator, Noguchi Museum, April 3, 2018.
 This table, which measures about 5.9 to 11.8” in height, was used from the middle of the Meiji era (circa 1890) to around 1955. See Hiroshi Ogawa, ed. “The Origins and Transition of O-zen.” Supporting Roles in Food Culture II. PDF.
 See Deborah A. Goldberg, Isamu Noguchi: The Artist as Engineer and Visionary Designer, 1918-1939, dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, September 2000, 182, and the dissertation for a record of Fuller’s and Noguchi’s collaborations and friendships. See also Shoji Sadao, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (Long Island City, New York: The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, 2011).
 See the Horten H.IX (Go 229 Gotha/Ho-229) prototype, the first delta-wing glider, which was first flown in 1944. I thank Dakin Hart for this observation.
 Cited in Hugh Kenner, Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller (New York: William Murrow & Company, 1973), 213, cited in Goldberg, Isamu Noguchi: The Artist as Engineer, 186.
 See “Isamu Noguchi’s Goodyear Table,” Lot 12, www.phillips.com (Phillips, December, 16, 2014).
 See Goldberg, Isamu Noguchi: The Artist as Engineer, 404-409, for a discussion about these three commissions. The Burden house burned in a fire in 1999 and only one chair, moved to a shed, and a single pair of andirons survived. See “The Burden Chair by Noguchi,” www.phillips.com (Phillips, December 4, 2016).
 See Lot 175, Important 20th Century Decorative Art & Design, Christie’s (June 14, 2012) 68-73, and Goldberg, “Isamu Noguchi: Visionary Designer," 19.
 The house was recently bulldozed. Conversation with Joshua Greene. The home had 16 rooms. Edward R. Murrow mentions the age of the house, describes the renovation, and provides film footage of Greene’s studio and home, but not the room where the furniture was installed, in “Marilyn Monroe—Person to Person—Edward R. Murrow,” (April 8, 1955).
 Conversation with Joshua Greene.
 Letter, Isamu Noguchi to Bernie Bernstein (Noguchi's accountant), June 13, 1949, The Noguchi Museum Archive.
 Conversation with Joshua Greene.
 Nicola Scevola, “Private Noguchi, Weston, Connecticut, USA,” Casa Vogue n. 31, April 2009, not paginated.
 Conversation with Joshua Greene. See also Scevola’s interview with Joshua Greene.
 “Poetic Rocks,” American Artist (May 1949), 19. I thank Alex Ross, Managing Editor, The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, for bringing this article to my attention. Thanks also to Janine Biunno, Archivist, Noguchi Museum, for attending to my research questions.
 Conversation with Joshua Greene.
 See Nicola Scevola.
 Eliot Elisofon’s daughter, Elin Elisofon, described the lifelong friendship her father had with Noguchi, April 20, 2018.
 Greene first met Elisofon, when he worked at August & Co., a photography studio founded by Elisofon and Marty Bauman. Conversation with Elin Elisofon, April 23, 2018, based on an interview between Elin Elisofon and Milton Greene, May 18, 1984.
 "It could accommodate eight perhaps.” Ibid.
 Bruce Downes, “Milton Greene: Fashion’s Man of the Hour,” Popular Photography (November 1951), 102.
 Greene played records in his studio and “knows how to make girls really happy at their work.” One model said: “He makes you feel that you are important.” Ibid., 42 & 102.
 Isamu Noguchi, A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 159.
 I would like to acknowledge Emilie Sims, Director of Research and Content, Wright, for her assistance in sharing Milton Greene’s photography with me.
Artist at Work
What makes this table by Isamu Noguchi even more exceptional is that there is photographic evidence of its creation. And even better, the images are by the incredibly talented, fashion photographer Milton Greene.
Milton H. Greene (1922–1985)
Milton H. Greene, famous for his fashion photography and celebrity portraits from the golden age of Hollywood, met Marilyn Monroe on a photo shoot for Look magazine in 1953. The pair developed an instant rapport, quickly becoming close friends and ultimately business partners. In 1954, after helping her get out of her studio contract with 20th Century Fox, they created Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc. Milton and Marilyn were much more than business partners, Marilyn became a part of the Greene family. By the time their relationship had ended in 1957, the pair had produced two feature films, in addition to more than 5,000 photographs of the iconic beauty. There was magic in Milton and Marilyn’s working relationship. The trust and confidence they had in each other’s capabilities was on full display in each photo.
Greene, was one of the earliest and best photographers working in the early days of color photography. Aside from his outstanding Monroe images, he has worked with a plethora of other celebrities, from Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Audrey Hepburn, to Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich, Dizzy Gillespie and Judy Garland. Not only was he a skilled photographer but he put his subjects at ease, allowing their true personalities to shine through. Greene’s work was published in several publications including Vogue, Life and Harper’s Bazaar.
His interest in photography started when he was just a teenager. Greene was awarded a scholarship to the Pratt Institute but he did not attend. Instead, Greene apprenticed with photojournalist Eliot Elisofon and later assisted Louise Dahl-Wolfe before embarking on his solo career. In 1942, he married his childhood sweetheart, Evelyn Franklin; the pair was very much a part of the bohemian and artistic community of New York. Evelyn and Milton divorced in 1949; she later married Richard Avedon and he the model Amy Franco. By this time models, actors, actresses and musicians were frequently in and out of his New York studio as well as his country cottage in Weston, Connecticut.
Greene passed away in 1985, thinking his life’s work was succumbing to the ravages of time. His eldest son, Joshua, began a journey to meticulously restore his father’s legacy. A photographer himself, Joshua spent years researching ways to restore his father’s photographs as well as cataloging and promoting Milton’s vast body of work all over the world. As a result, Joshua established The Archives, a company committed to the restoration and preservation of photography. After spending nearly two decades restoring his father’s archive, Joshua Greene and his company are widely regarded as one of the leaders in photographic restoration and have been at the forefront of the digital imaging and large-format printing revolution.