Isamu Noguchi - The Collector: Icons of Design New York Tuesday, December 16, 2014 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Gansevoort Gallery, New York
    Michael and Susan Rich, Los Angeles, 1999
    Los Angeles Modern Auctions, Los Angeles, "Modern Art & Design," December 16, 2012, lot 285
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960," Brooklyn Museum of Art, October 12, 2001-January 6, 2002; then traveled to: The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, February 16-May 12, 2002; The Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, June 21-September 15, 2002; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 17, 2002-February 23, 2003; Phoenix Art Museum, April 4-June 29, 2003
    "Surreal Things: Surrealism & Design at the V&A," Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 22-July 22, 2007; then traveled to: Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam, September 29, 2007-January 6, 2008; Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, March 3-September 7, 2008

  • Literature

    Brooke Kamin Rapaport and Kevin L. Stayton, Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age, 1940-1960, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 1980, p. 30
    Ghislane Wood, Surreal Things, Surrealism and Design, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum London, 2007, p. 304

    Nancy Grove and Diane Botnick, The Sculpture of Isamu Noguchi, 1924–1979: A Catalogue, New York, 1980, p. 147, cat. no. 810
    Derek E. Ostergard, George Nakashima, Full Circle, exh. cat., American Craft Museum, New York, 1989, p. 134
    Martin Eidelberg, Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was, New York, 1991, pp. 107-108
    Bruce Altshuler, Noguchi, New York, 1994, p. 52 fig. 55
    Alexander von Vegesack, et al., eds., Isamu Noguchi, Sculptural Design, exh. cat., Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, 2001, pp. 78-79, 126-27, 287
    Larry List, ed., The Imagery of Chess, exh. cat., The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, 2005, cover, pp. vi, 129, 131
    Mathias Schwartz-Clauss, Peter Dunas and Alexander von Vegesack, 100 Masterpieces from the Vitra Design Museum Collection, exh. cat., Weil am Rhein, 2006, p. 149
    On Becoming an Artist: Isamu Noguchi and his Contemporaries, exh. cat., The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, Long Island City, 2011, pp. 77-78

  • Catalogue Essay

    Phillips would like to thank The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum and Larry List, New York, for their assistance cataloguing the present lot.


    The 20th century sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi devoted a large part of his career to re-envisioning functional, traditional objects as expressions of modernism. Noguchi regarded furniture as sculptural forms with which people often had meaningful, prolonged, and intimate connection as part of their environment, hence objects worthy of serious aesthetic design and appreciation.

    This chess table design was developed by Noguchi in his Greenwich Village studio for the legendary 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition organized by his friends Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst and held at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Newsweek magazine proclaimed that “the sculptor Noguchi…has created the most beautiful piece in the show…” The original design was bought the night of the gallery opening by prominent architect and furniture designer George Nelson, who, in 1947 convinced The Herman Miller Furniture Company to manufacture the Chess Table and Noguchi’s ovoid glass top coffee table design.

    While the glass coffee table has become a design standard, produced to this day, its companion piece, a rarity, was produced for only three years. The few extant examples are predominantly in solid, ebonized black finish. This version, in mildly-figured bird’s-eye maple, may be unique, a custom order intended to harmonize with a specific interior.

    In this table design Noguchi pioneered his technique of notching together flat biomorphic shapes to create free-standing forms, an approach with which he later generated a signature group of sculptures, his notched planar abstractions of the mid-to-late 1940s. An artistic nomad, Noguchi presaged the concept of “pack flat to ship” by designing the table to break down into a table top, two flat leg pieces, a cast aluminum tray, and a metal rod.

    The child of an American mother and Japanese father, Noguchi sought to integrate elements of Eastern and Western culture in his work. In this versatile design, the table top could be raised to Western-style dining or gaming height, or lowered to a level at which one traditionally knelt to play games in Eastern cultures. A long metal rod fastened to the tabletop and running down through a clamp in the central leg joint facilitated the height changes in the original. The current example has the Herman Miller factory-made rod with a fixed table top mount.

    Alluding to the traditional inlaid mother of pearl center-points found on the earliest Asian game boards, Noguchi devised a subtle but perfectly functional 8 x 8 grid of red dots and translucent acrylic discs, instead of a Western-style grid of squares, ensuring the table was not exclusively used for gaming.

    Originally designed during WW II for chess, a “war game," the table is comprised of what were then high-tech, cutting edge wartime materials: cast aluminum, laminated lumber-core veneered plywood, and acrylic plastic. The tabletop also swiveled to reveal two protected deeply scooped out aluminum “fox hole” pockets in which playing cards, game pieces, sewing supplies, cigarettes, or what-have-you could be kept neatly out of sight.

    Like the cardinal points of a compass, the table legs intersect at a common central point. Inspired by the models he made of stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company, the artist saw tables as stages upon which entertainments are offered; places where one shares nourishment of body or mind; or social spaces that are meeting places, presaging his later-realized ambitions to design entire plazas, parks and playgrounds. This table exemplifies Noguchi’s life-long devotion to the “… relationship of objects in totality, to life, and to people.”

    Author of The Imagery of Chess Revisited
    New York, November 2014


Rare "Chess Table," model no. IN-61

circa 1947-1949
Laminated bird's-eye maple, painted steel, the top with clear and red acrylic inlays.
19 1/4 x 33 7/8 x 30 3/4 in. (48.9 x 86 x 78.1 cm)
Produced by The Herman Miller Furniture Company, USA.

$150,000 - 200,000 

Sold for $242,500

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Alexander Payne
Worldwide Head of Design
+44 20 7318 4052

Alex Heminway
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New York
+1 212 940 1268

The Collector: Icons of Design

New York Auction 16 December 2014 5pm