Gradually, akari became increasingly codified, to the point where the Noguchi Museum—the official vendor of the art form—just sold the lamps as standard pairings of bases and shades that came in a box. “My hope in doing the show is to shake some artistry back into it,” Hart said. “Make it a little weird, mysterious, and more sculptural.”
Today, the electric paper lamp is a common lighting fixture, but Noguchi’s designs were unorthodox at the time. He originally conceived them in order to help reawaken the traditional Japanese paper lantern industry. In 1951, the artist traveled to Gifu in central Japan, which was the birthplace of the centuries-old craft. The city was struggling to survive in the wake of World War II, and Gifu’s mayor asked the sculptor to help revive this art form. Under Noguchi’s direction, the cheap paper balls—meant to be illuminated with a candle and sent floating down a river or up into the air—were transformed into sleek objects for the home. They were electrified and contemporized.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, major stores around the world, from Bloomingdales to Bonniers, quickly began to stock these modern consumer products. Regardless of this high demand, though, akari were—and still are—entirely handmade in a Gifu factory owned by Ozeki, a 127-year-old company. But they represented a whole new technology with clever engineering. Aside from having interchangeable parts, each akari is lightweight and collapsible, and therefore easy to ship, store, and install. They essentially act in many ways that sculpture traditionally does not.