A rare 1940s chess table by Isamu Noguchi
I had just walked into the room of items-with-auction-prices-so-high-I-could-barely-see-over-them when an auctioneer-owner from another house waved me over. She was standing near a simple black coffee table with a wavy top and puzzle base.
As I browsed the items on my own, I’m sure I would have stopped to check out the table. J.J., however, wanted to make sure I saw it because this table was special. It was a Noguchi table, she told me, and I instantly recognized the name of one of the world’s top designers. It’s a rare table, she added, noting that it was one of only a handful that anyone knew about.
“It’s worth about $30,000,” she said. “It’s the most expensive thing in the room.”
To make sure she was right, she nodded toward a glass cabinet with Chinese ivory and other high-end pieces, wondering if any of those could match it. At auction, none of them would come even close: Not the pencil drawing of a Tahitian Goddess by Paul Gauguin ($6,000), an unsigned study of a 1938 New Year’s Eve baby cover for the Saturday Evening Post by J.C. Leyendecker ($5,500), French marble and bronze clocks, Louis XVI-style furniture, Tiffany & Co. silver flatware, a 10-foot model of the Eiffel Tower and a 44″ stone carving of an African woman.
Even though the Isamu Noguchi chess table looked nondescript, its clean lines and the white discs and red pencil-point dots on the chess-board tabletop gave it a distinctive and lovely appearance. Unless you knew it was a Noguchi, designed by him in 1944 and made by furniture maker Herman Miller, you’d never suspect that it was so rare. It was said to be one of only eight that existed.
Herman Miller produced a limited number of the tables, and, according to one website, only a “passionate” few were drawn to them. I understood why. I’ve tried playing chess before, and it’s hard enough trying to best your competition on a board with squares. Trying to figure out the board and your strategy at the same time would be challenging.
The table at auction also had some wear and the top was wobbly. J.J. saw the reason why: “Maybe a drawer or something is missing,” she said.
Missing was a tray underneath the table top with troughs that held the chess pieces, all of which apparently had long been lost. The auction house had noted these issues in the description:
“Rare and important chess table designed by Isamu Noguchi for Herman Miller. Good condition with light wear. No trays. Measures 18 1/2″ x 26 1/4″ x 25 1/2″.”
For a table by Noguchi, much of that didn’t matter. I’ve gone to auctions long enough to know that damage to a rare item – or even an item that’s just hard to find – means nothing to someone who wants it. So, I suspected that a many someones wanted this table and that it would go for big bucks.
Noguchi made the original for a 1944 exhibition called “The Imagery of Chess” at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. Organized by artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst, it was considered a major event in the history of modernism, according to the Noguchi Museum in New York. Noguchi was among a noted group of avant-garde artists who were invited to submit chess-themed works.
According to the museum, a Newsweek critic called Noguchi’s submission “the most beautiful piece in the show.”
About two years later, the Herman Miller company began making the tables commercially and promoting them as “ideal for a small coffee table.” One museum website noted that it was only accepted by a few passionate chess players, and so the production run was stemmed.
The table has a rotating top of red and white inlays over an aluminum tray and a base of ebonized plywood. Several sites called the table and chess pieces biomorphic, meaning they had an organic or abstract shape with curvy lines, like something you’d see in nature.
The Noguchi museum website has a reproduction of the table and chess pieces. It announced in 2005 that it would be selling the reproductions for $25,000 as part of an exhibit called “The Imagery of Chess Revisited.”
Noguchi was as rare an artist as this table he designed. A Japanese-American, he was born in Los Angeles, and spent some of his childhood in Japan before moving to Indiana, according to a bio on the Noguchi museum site. While in pre-med at Columbia University in New York, he took sculpting classes and soon left college to study sculpting. One site noted that his first art teacher told him that he’d never be a sculptor.
Nabbing a Guggenheim Fellowship, he traveled to Europe to study with sculptor Constantin Brancusi in the late 1920s, and turned to modernism and abstraction. His first recognition in the United States came when he created a freedom of the press sculpture for the Associated Press building in New York in 1938. He set up a studio in New York, and traveled to Asia, Mexico and Europe.
When the United States interned Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, Noguchi asked to join them, living there for about seven months, according to the museum. The internment of a group of the nation’s citizens turned him into a political activist. As for his art, Noguchi designed sets for Martha Graham and her dance company and developed a Bakelite intercom for the Zenith Radio Corp., among other things. He opened his museum in 1985. Noguchi died in 1988.
I wasn’t at the auction when the chess table sold, but the auction house – which was selling it without a reserve or minimum price – was expecting a ton of interest. I found several sales on the web, going as far back as 2002:
Christie’s, 2002 – $83,650 (plus premium)
Wright auction house, Chicago, 2002 – $97,750
Los Angeles Modern Auction, 2011 – $187,500
Christie’s, 2012 – $302,500 (plus premium)