Stamp Stories: Isamu Noguchi

Just For Kids!
stamp featuring a sculpture resembling a mother holding a child
37-cent Mother and Child stamp

Discover how eastern and western cultures intersected in the life and art of Japanese American designer Isamu Noguchi. Educators from the National Postal Museum and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum explore how Noguchi expressed his dual identities by looking at examples of his work and by reading a children’s book about his extraordinary life.

Isamu Noguchi commemorative stamps

To learn more, you can explore the National Postal Museum’s Learning Lab collection: Breaking Barriers: Examining the Life and Work of Isamu Noguchi

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Cecilia: And I’m Cecilia from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about a designer named Isamu Noguchi.

Cecilia: Let’s get started!

Isamu Noguchi was a designer. A designer is a person who plans and makes things that people use- from the playground you play on, to the chair you sit in. Here he is in this picture surrounded by some of his designs. Let’s look at some of the things that he designed.

Here is a stool that Isamu Noguchi designed. A stool is a place to sit. This one is called the 86T Rocking Stool. It is called a rocking stool because people can sit on it, or rock back and forth! We can see Noguchi’s sketch for the stool here too. Designers use sketches to make plans for their work and share their ideas. Have you ever made a sketch?

Playgrounds are also designed! This is a picture of the Noguchi Playscape in Atlanta, Georgia. He wanted to invite the children who played here to use their imaginations to enjoy the different shapes, colors, and spaces.

Even tables are designed. This table was made by Noguchi and is made of glass and wood. This table looks different from the tables we might see every day. Do you notice the rounded shapes he used, and the interesting way he fit them together?

Isamu Noguchi was born in California and raised in Japan. Here you can see two postage stamps with pictures of what those places look like. California is shown on the taller stamp on the left, and the stamp of Japan is on the right. Isamu moved to Japan with his mother when he was two years old and lived there until he was thirteen. Isamu’s father was from Japan, and his mother was from the United States, in California. What do you notice about these two places from the pictures? What is the same? What looks different? Being from two different places was hard for Isamu. Sometimes, he felt like he did not belong in either place.

But Isamu loved to make things. In his life as a designer, Isamu took inspiration from both places he came from. Inspiration is something that gives us an idea. Isamu was especially inspired by nature: rocks, water, and the land in both Japan and the United States. This work by Noguchi is called Grey Sun.

Even when he was very young, art and design was a place Isamu could be free. Here is a picture of Isamu when he was about 12 years old.

When he was 10, Isamu even helped his mother design and build their house in Japan. Let’s hear more about Isamu Noguchi’s inspiration, and the story behind this very special house.

Maureen: Thanks so much for sharing all of that about Isamu Noguchi. I’m so interested to hear more in this book called The East West House: Noguchi’s Childhood in Japan. The text and illustrations are by Cristy Hale. Special thanks to Lee and Low books for permission to use this book.

Father’s house in Tokyo glowed with moonlight through the shoji screens. Shadows on the wall moved like waves as tiny fingers curled in play. With Mama he had sailed countless days from America to this unknown place. Then a stranger-father chose his name: Isamu, Mr. Courageous.

Now father had another family. His home was not their harbor. Outside, a bamboo flute cried through barren trees and a chilly wind scattered leaves.

Unwelcome, yet they remained – never long in any place. They were gaijin, foreigners, shunned by everyone.

Together they explored Japan, sat silently in gardens. Isamu listened to wind and current. He held each leaf up close.

He walked watching shadows shift. Light on stone revealed secret colors. Water mirrored shapes above – a kaleidoscope in motion.

Earth, rock, flowers, trees – these were Isamu’s trusted friends. He dug deep to make his own stream and steered its course with a stone.

At school he tried to join in play but others teased and turned from him. Left out and alone, Isamu made a different kind of joy. He molded clay to form a wave, then painted it blue like Mama’s eyes. Holding soft earth in his hands he almost forgot his loneliness.

Mama bought a tiny wedge of land under Chigasaki pines. An unwanted, awkward, sloping lot looking out to sea.

Only eight, Isamu drew up plans to make a small, distinctive house. Half Eastern, half Western in design, it was a mixture like his own.

He supervised construction, watched each detail with care. Evenings he shared his notes with Mama – reports of his dreams growing tall.

Three rooms laid out on the bottom floor and one large room on top. The builders done, now it remained for Isamu to add his touch. Apprenticed to a carpenter, he sculpted waves in cherry wood. Carved panels for the sliding doors that moved from east to west, and back again.

He nestled close to Mama’s side as she read him myths of ancient Greece. Outside their window Mount Fuji swelled – inspiration for Isamu to hold.

With the world in his hands his imagination soared. And where emptiness once lived, Isamu created home.

Isamu Noguchi led such an interesting life, and he created art in so many ways! Cecilia told us about some of the objects Noguchi designed for everyday use. He was also very famous for his sculptures. Sculpture is a kind of art which is usually three-dimensional. That means it’s not flat, like paintings and drawings. Unlike designs that people use, sculptures are just meant to be looked at and enjoyed. In 2004 the United States Postal Service honored Isamu Noguchi with a set of stamps that showed some of his sculptures. On the left side there is a photo of Noguchi standing in front of one of his sculptures. Underneath that is a quote from him that includes the words, “Everything is sculpture.” This reminds me of how Noguchi found inspiration in nature, and in all the things around him. Let’s take a look at a few of the sculptures that were chosen for the stamps.

What do you think this artwork might be? Do you see anything that you recognize? This sculpture is called Mother and Child, and it’s carved from stone. Do you see the shape of a mother hugging a small child? It’s somewhat abstract, which means the artist didn’t want it to look exactly like real people, but we can see some features that represent human bodies, like heads and arms.

For Noguchi, there was no separation between art and design. You can see that in this stamp showing an Akari lamp. The word Akari means light in Japanese, and this lamp was inspired by lanterns used by fishermen on the coast of Japan. It’s made from paper, bamboo, and wires. It joins those traditional materials with a modern element that is often found in art from the United States and other western cultures. The Akari lamps that Noguchi made throughout his career are a famous example of his work, and show how he combined his background from two places in how he designed things.

This artwork looks a little like the one Cecelia showed us called Grey Sun. This one is called Black Sun and it’s a nine-foot-tall sculpture that is found in a park in Seattle, Washington. Why do you think it’s called Black Sun? It’s round, and we think of the sun as round. But the color and the texture – all those lines and bumps – might be different than what we’re used to. And there’s a hole in the middle! Noguchi’s art so often took everyday things and reimagined them in unexpected ways.

Cecelia: That was a lot of fun exploring the life and work of Isamu Noguchi! His perspective as someone from two places gave him the special skill of being able to see things in a new way. I feel a special connection to Noguchi’s story, as I grew up in two different countries as well. If you’d like to learn more about Noguchi’s designs, check out the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s website for more content and resources. 

Maureen: Thanks so much, Cecilia, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about Isamu Noguchi and about a whole lot of other topics you can also visit the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!