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May 30, 2013

Modern Home Classics: Noguchi’s Light Sculptures


Associated Press

New York (AP) The round, white, paper light shades sold at Ikea for $5 are a familiar item in contemporary interior design. But these inexpensive lanterns are knockoffs of light sculptures created by the renowned artist Isamu Noguchi in the early 1950s.

The Noguchi lamps—called akari, the Japanese word for light—were inspired by traditional Japanese lanterns used in ancestor worship. Over the decades, the akari became classics of mid-20th century modern home decor.

Noguchi’s original designs are still handmade in Japan; they come in a variety of colors and dozens of geometric designs _ including the widely imitated white sphere _ and range in price from $100 to $1,000. And they pop up in some pretty cool places, from painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico to Tony Stark’s bedroom in ``Iron Man 3.’’

The story of how the late Noguchi came to create akari is rooted in the recovery of Japan’s post-World War II economy and the cross-cultural currents that influenced his spare, bold, modernist aesthetics.

Noguchi’s mother was American; his father Japanese. They never married. Born in 1904, Noguchi spent years in both countries during his youth. After World War II, he was greatly admired by the art and design community in Japan, and at some point met the mayor of the town of Gifu, where local industry centered around making lanterns for ancestry worship, using paper from mulberry trees.

``The mayor asked Noguchi, `Can you help us resurrect our lantern business?’’’ said Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, N.Y. ``That’s how the akari were first produced. They were exported as an economic product and were well-received by the design community.’’

She added that Noguchi ``papered them sculpturally. He didn’t call them lanterns or lamps; he called them light sculptures.’’

Noguchi’s concept ``stood in sharp contrast to 1950s contemporary, modern, efficient lighting trends,’’ said Peter Barna, provost of Pratt Institute, the art and design college in Brooklyn, N.Y. Popular lighting options of the day included track lights, adjustable desk lamps and ``pole lamps with conical shades,’’ added Barna, a former president of an international lighting design firm.

Noguchi’s designs were radically different, ``a sculptor’s memory of the soft magic of material and light,’’ said Barna.
Eventually, Noguchi developed a relationship with one family of lantern makers. The same family still produces his designs today. ``They’re all handmade, each one, individually, from molds. They’re not mass-produced,’’ Dixon said.
``We’re now working with the third generation there, filling our orders. ... Our biggest challenge is meeting the demand.’’

Depending on which lamp is ordered, ``you might hit the jackpot and get a lamp right away or you can wait three to six months.’’ She added: ``We lose a lot of business’’ from customers who don’t want to wait.

Each lamp has bamboo ribbing and standard wiring, and can accommodate incandescent or compact fluorescent bulbs (45 watts for small lamps, 75 watts for large). Designs range from spheres, discs and cylinders to triangles, boxes, trapezoids, and other geometric shapes and combinations. Most shades are white, but some are decorated in orange, green or black; a few bear abstract designs.

There are hanging lamps, as well as table lamps and floor lamps with metal legs or small black circular bases. Many appear breathtakingly elegant; others have a whimsical, futuristic look.

A large selection of akari can be seen at the Noguchi Museum, located in the studio where he worked for decades in Long Island City, an industrial neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. A few lamps are displayed amid Noguchi’s sculptures, but the best place to see them is in the cafe and gift shop, where they line bookshelves, hang over the cash register, and decorate a small area where visitors can relax, using a Noguchi coffee table to put their snacks on.

Danielle Berman, the production designer for ``Iron Man 3,’’ chose a tall Noguchi lamp in a stacked box design to illuminate Tony Stark’s bedroom. ``It was such a modernist home,’’ she explained. ``It had a lot of very round, organic lines. I immediately thought of that lamp because it was such a geometric contrast.’’

Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr., is a superhero billionaire. Berman said she imagined his girlfriend, ``the Gwyneth Paltrow character, putting the lights around Tony’s house when she redecorated. She’s a lover of design and art.’’ Berman has also used Noguchi lamps on many other sets, from the TV show ``House’’ to the first film in the ``Hangover’’ series.

Noguchi’s ``understanding of space,’’ she said, is ``very organic. He uses all these natural materials. It’s the simplicity, yet it’s very complex. You light it and the paper gives this beautiful glow. It’s a beautiful element to have on any set. I try to use them whenever I can.’’

Fans of the 20th century modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe will find Noguchi’s classic white sphere lantern on a tour of her home and studio in Abiquiu, N.M. Noguchi ``sent Miss O’Keeffe several lanterns as gifts with his sister,’’ explained Judy Lopez, director of Abiquiu Historic Properties for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. ``She decided to place this large one in her dining room.’’

The lamp hangs from a wooden ceiling in the inviting, white-walled space, over a simple table and chairs.

Cheap imitations of Noguchi lamps, especially the white sphere, have become so ubiquitous that they’re almost a cliche of outdoor party decor and a somewhat bohemian style.

But why spend hundreds on an original when you can get a knockoff for a fraction of the price? Aside from the difference in workmanship and materials, Berman points out that ``the knockoffs aren’t quite his designs.’’ Dixon also notes, ``Noguchi made these lamps so that people could buy them and live with his sculpture. It was the idea that you, too, the every man, for $100, a modest amount of money, could own an artwork by a prominent person.’’

One downside: The paper is vulnerable to damp climates, though it does well in dry locations like O’Keeffe’s.

And what if you don’t live in a home defined by modernist aesthetics? Would a Noguchi lamp work with flowered curtains, an overstuffed sofa and patterned wallpaper?

Berman thinks ``antiques and modernist pieces can work well together.’’ But whether you mix the lamp in with a jumble of interesting objects or set it off as a special piece, she said, consider its shape. In a room with lots of square and rectangular lines, go for a rounded lamp; in a room with curves in furniture and decor, go for a linear lamp.

Barna agreed that the lamps can work with any style, but noted they ``were conceived as sculptures that delicately stand as warm friends in an interior space. They glow, so will probably be the dominant focus in any space they are in.’’

NOGUCHI MUSEUM: In Long Island City (Queens), N.Y.; . Akari can be ordered from .


Facial Recognition Technology To Stop Crime...Invade Privacy?


Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pittsburgh (AP) The Tsarnaev brothers, like anyone in a crowd of strangers, might have expected to be anonymous.

But when the FBI released blurry, off-angle images of the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings, researchers with Carnegie Mellon University’s CyLab Biometrics Center began trying to bring them into focus.

In a real-time experiment, the scientists digitally mapped the face of ``Suspect 2,’’ turned it toward the camera and enhanced it so it could be matched against a database. The researchers did not know how well they had done until authorities identified the suspect as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger, surviving brother and a student at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

``I was like, `Holy shish kabobs!’ “ Marios Savvides, director of the CMU Cylab, told the Tribune-Review. ``It’s not exactly him, but it’s also not a random face. It does fit him.’’

The technology, to be sure, remains in its infancy. Yet cyber experts believe it’s only a matter of years—and research dollars—until computers can identify almost anyone instantly. Computers then could use electronic data to immediately construct an intimate dossier about the person, much of it from available information online that many people put out there themselves.

From seeing just the image of a face, computers will find its match in a database of millions of driver’s license portraits and photos on social media sites. From there, the computer will link to the person’s name and details such as their Social Security number, preferences, hobbies, family and friends.

Adding that capability to drones that can fly into spaces where planes cannot—machines that can track a person moving about and can stay aloft for days—means that people will give up privacy as well as the concept of anonymity.

``We are accustomed to living in a society where our movements are not tracked from place to place, and it’s a big shift to have that happen,’’ said Jennifer Lynch, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that works to protect digital rights and privacy.

``There’s so much data about us in different places that it’s absolutely impossible to keep track of it or to delete it. ... Adding facial recognition capabilities to that will destroy anonymity and will create a pretty big chilling effect on how we feel about moving about in society and the choices we make in our lives.’’


Inside the CyLab at Carnegie Mellon, an off-the-shelf drone with four rotors spins about the room. As it does, a camera looks into each face and sends images to a computer that dissects them into distinct markers that can be matched against a database.

Students working with Savvides are figuring out how to break up appearance into landmarks as unique as a fingerprint and to build a 3-D image from a single picture so it can be matched from different angles.

``The things we can do are endless,’’ said Savvides. ``We’re basically decoding the face.’’

For now, the database holds only the images of lab workers and visitors who agree to participate. Savvides said he can envision a day when images collected by tiny cameras embedded in police cruisers and attached to officers’ uniforms are matched against a database of wanted criminals. As soon as a driver looks into a rear-view mirror to see an officer pulling up, the person’s face could be matched.

That technology does not exist, but the students have built a camera that collects facial identifiers from as far as 60 feet away.

Funded by the Department of Defense’s Biometrics Identity Management Agency, the camera could be mounted to the entry point of a military base or embassy to identify visitors before they’re close enough to attack.

``We want to push the distance of biometric capture,’’ said Travis McCartney, a project manager with the federal agency in Fairmont, W.Va. ``How can we identify folks from longer ranges for purposes of security and to keep our personnel out of harm’s way?’’
Taken steps further using tiny drones that can fly over public areas and link to databases from social media sites, the technology might sweep down any American street and identify almost anyone instantly. Facebook users upload 2.5 billion images a month, but the company limits public access.

A separate research team at CMU has conducted experiments that matched photos of students on campus with their Facebook profiles _ and then predicted their interests and Social Security numbers.

But when the researchers tried matching surveillance photos of Tsarnaev with the known photos of him released later, the computer had a hard time detecting similarities. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology at CMU’s Heinz College, worked on the experiment and faulted the distance and poor quality of the surveillance equipment.

Technological hurdles such as that are falling away, he said. Every year, camera phones offer better lenses and higher resolutions.


The databases of identified images grow with the help of social media and retail sites in which users upload their images to try on virtual glasses or hairstyles. Rather than seeking a match among department of motor vehicles portraits, searchers might access dozens of photos from varied angles and settings.

Computational power is growing, too. Scanning through millions of photos with commercial computers takes hours, but government agencies have access to more powerful systems.

``It could happen in the not-so-distant future, and from a behavior perspective, it does raise important/creepy/exciting kinds of questions,’’ Acquisti said.

Not to worry, said Nita Farahany, a Duke University law professor who specializes in digital privacy. The U.S. Constitution will keep the government from peering into homes, and state laws block Peeping Toms.

Market forces, she added, should limit corporations.

``Who will safeguard us against the ubiquitous collection of data by corporations?’’ Farahany asked. ``If the goal of those companies is really to gather information to more precisely target advertisements and product offers to would-be consumers, maybe we have a lot less to worry about than people fear.’’




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