When the late Isamu Noguchi began sculpting lanterns from paper in 1951, he called them Akari, the Japanese word for light. The word conveys a dual meaning, evoking both Akari’s luminousness and seeming weightlessness, much as the lights merge a duality of traditions, uniting craft with technology through the simple act of inserting an electrical bulb into a form usually illuminated by candlelight.
“The light of Akari is like the light of the sun filtered through the paper of shoji,” Noguchi once said. “The harshness of electricity is thus transformed through the magic of paper back to the light of our origin—the sun—so that its warmth may continue to fill our rooms at night.”
Decades later, the Noguchi Museum’s exhibition “Akari Unfolded: A Collection by YMER&MALTA,” on view through January 27, 2019, honors the spirit of Noguchi’s iconic light designs with the introduction of 26 new designs that likewise combine craft traditions with contemporary sensibilities. YMER&MALTA founder Valérie Maltaverne, an expert in historic French savoir faire, worked with six designers in an array of materials: linen, metal, resin, Plexiglas, concrete, and paper.
“She felt that she and her designers could do something meaningful, technically and aesthetically, pushing Akari values and principles into the age of LED,” says Noguchi Museum senior curator Dakin Hart. In addition to being the preeminent expert in the centuries-old traditions of the luxuriously handmade, Maltaverne also possesses a keen sense for contemporary taste and an appetite for new technologies. Together, she and the six designers—Sebastian Bergne, Stephen Burks, Océane Delain, Benjamin Graindorge, Sylvain Rieu-Piquet, and the firm Nendo—entered a trial-and-error process of prototyping and material experimentation.
Each work in the resulting exhibition resonates with Noguchi’s legacy in a variety of ways, in his architectonics, his reverence for nature, or, as Hart puts it, “Noguchi’s expansive notion of sculpture.” Designer Benjamin Graindorge’s black tubular steel “edaLight,” for example, formally merges the natural world with the technological one, resembling at once a “supersized circuit board and a climbing vine,” according to Hart, “as if a giant, bioluminescent, unobtaniumpowered leaf had fallen to Earth from a tree on Pandora. “EtaLight” is cosmically forward-looking and fundamentally, serenely biomorphic. It’s an instant classic.”
For Maltaverne, creating new works in Noguchi’s legacy was an honor. “I’ve known Noguchi through the Akari lamps, which have followed me in my different homes,” she says. “Akari is a strong word that defines the spirit of this collection, where the importance of the light itself comes before the object that holds it. Our lamps must be thesouls of the room they’re in, capable of transforming the environment.”
Originally from Bayeux, France, Océane Delain specializes in digital fabrication, working principally for the Paris-based design studio Tech Shop. For “Akari Unfolded,” she applied her digital knowhow to the production of “Belle de Jour” and “Belle de Nuit,” two lamps inspired by images of rock formations Valérie Maltaverne photographed during a trip to Corsica. “When I showed her the pictures, Océane made several drawings and, as she is a very practical designer, we entered in an extensive 3D-printing and paper laser-cutting prototyping process until we achieved the final design,” says Maltaverne. The result is one in linen, the French equivalent to Japan’s bamboo, and another in ceramic.