LAMA BLOG

Peter’s Auction Pick of the Day: Isamu Noguchi Chess Table

December 10, 2012

There were barely more Isamu Noguchi Chess tables produced than there are fingers on your hands. The handful of tables was manufactured by Herman Miller in the late 1940s, and due to the cost of production, the Chess table was discontinued. One by one, over the past few decades, these scarce tables have been uncovered in original owners’ estates and have traded hands at constantly increasing levels. It is perhaps an ideal study in supply and demand. The supply is shrinking due to recent examples being acquired by institutions, which are unlikely to ever be traded again. The opportunity to acquire one of these icons is therefore going to become rarer and more difficult as time goes on. The example we are offering (Lot 285) not only retains its original finish, plastic inserts, and red dowel, but it also has the added benefit of being exhibited in some of the most respected museums today including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Walker Art Center, Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Phoenix Art Museum, Victor & Albert Museum, Boijmans Museum, and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Continue reading for more information on the Chess table:

Both sculptural and utilitarian, the Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) Chess table (designed 1944-48) was a chance for Noguchi to marry his artistic vision with his desire to produce usable vessels. He designed the initial prototype shortly after leaving the Nisei Japanese internment camp in Arizona. In 1944, Noguchi was one of 32 artists (the number symbolic of the 32 pieces on a chess board), including Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst, invited to exhibit chess-inspired artwork for the show “The Imagery of Chess,” hosted by the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. A Newsweek critic described the table as “the most beautiful piece in the show.”

George Nelson immediately bought Noguchi’s hit piece, and for a brief period beginning in 1947 had it manufactured in limited quantities at Herman Miller. Three amorphous wooden shapes and a curvaceous aluminum compartment assemble as a three-dimensional biomorphic structure. Just as Arp and Calder avoided semi-precious stones and other materials typically used in jewelry, Noguchi preferred veneered plywood, aluminum, and acrylic plastic to keep the table affordable. Through these methods, these artists achieved the transformative power of Surrealism by manifesting an idea and realizing the object’s potential “to entrap” the user in “an art performance, even to become bewitched.”

Johnson, Paul, and Martin Eidelberg. Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was. New York: Abrams, 1991. Print.
K., Troy. “We’ve Got Game.” ARTicle. The Art Institute of Chicago, 14 Sept. 2011.

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