Isamu Noguchi, The Japanese American artist and Landscape architect created the iconic Akari light sculptures after visiting Gifu City, about 270km west of Tokyo. GIfu Prefecture is known for its traditional crafts, among them, the making of paper lanterns.
The Mayor of Gifu City at the time asked Noguchi how to revive the traditional lantern making industry. Noguchi blended the simplicity of Japanese aesthetics with the principles of modernist design and created the concept of "light sculpture" which he likened to "the light of the sun filtered through the paper of shoji". Paper and light. He did not intend the Akari lamps to be status symbols, only to "add to the quality of life and fill the world with light"*
Today Akari light sculptures are sold at the Noguchi museum, Vitra, the shop at MOMA and many other upmarket retailers. Prices range between $100.00 and $1,335.00. They are considered iconic mid century designs.
The story of Noguchi and the Akari lights is inspiring on so many levels. One of my favorite aspects of it is the creation of something precious and beautiful out of humble materials. Value out of nothing more than imagination, vision and creativity. That, for me, is what design is all about. The materials used might have a higher or lower inherent value but it is the decisions and judgements made by the creator that conjure up an object intended to cause emotion and a connection with those who behold it.
A perfect- and extreme- example of this is the British artist and Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, who in 1995 created a piece titled Work No.88. It is a sheet of A4 white paper crumpled into a perfect 2 Inch ball.
Without aspiring to iconic design or conceptual fine art, I decided to have some fun with paper and light. My first thought was to make some large origami shapes out of white card and use them as light shades for pendant lights. This proved harder than I had anticipated. The designs required too many folds and re folds and the card got heavy and thick and unmanageable. After a few false starts I turned to lighter Kraft paper and manage to fold a cute rabbit into a lamp:
Making the rabbit was enjoyable and satisfying but it seemed to me that white paper, light and angles were a magical combination that required simplicity. I love the idea of having an angular structure made out of paper. Strong and ephemeral at the same time.
With this in mind, came accordion folds to create a wheel shade out of white card. This was closer to what I was looking for, but still felt overworked and somehow complicated.
In the end, it was a simple square piece of card, folded into four and then re folded again that worked the best. Here was practically no skill required to make this and yet it achieved the right balance of boldness and delicacy. I think there might be endless possibilities for paper lamps - and anyone who has ever folded a paper airplane has the skill and imagination to make one.
* from the life of Isamu Noguch
All photographs ( Apart from Chinese Lanterns) by Ian Cartwright.
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