If the eyes are the window to the soul of the individual, then surely architecture is the window to the soul of a society, and as my bones clattered and clanked from the winter I’d just escaped I felt my own Morlock soul very much under assault by the passive-aggressive corpo-bland Eloi soul of this building. Brand-new, located on a very expensive corner of a relatively cheap city. Nearly a hundred meeting rooms across six floors, each given a completely non-helpful and corporate-oriented name like “Chess” and “Opportunity” and “St. Andrews”.
My meeting room was on one of those floors but it wasn’t immediately apparent which one. The elevators were tiny and stuck in a corner to discourage use; the stairs were a massive four-sided spiral with glass all around like a racquetball court at an expensive club so everybody could see if you were using them. Take the stairs, the architecture suggested, everybody is doing it. As I limped towards the glass door for the stairs and the sign beyond it proclaiming that the stairwell was a “Quiet Safe Space” for the differently abled, I came face-to-furniture with an old friend wearing a new nametag.
Isamu Noguchi designed quite a few things, including a sculpture that greets visitors to the San Francisco airport, but he is probably best known for the Noguchi Table, which he designed in 1944 for Herman Miller as a production-friendly version of a table he’d done in 1939. With the exception of a break between 1973 and 1984, the table has been in constant production at Herman Miller’s Zeeland, MI facility since 1947.
I’d wanted a Noguchi of my own since my university days but it wasn’t until 2001, when my house was completed, that I was actually able to buy one and make it the focal point of a room. I had a bit of quiet pride in the fact that I’d spent fifteen hundred dollars on a coffee table well before my thirtieth birthday. It seemed a very adult thing to do., a thing that eloquently bespoke a union of classical education and modest financial success. I chose the “Noguchi black” variant because that’s how the man designed it.
The arrival of my son in 2009 turned the Noguchi, with its seventy-eight-pound glass top, from a source of pride to a source of concern. John would play near it, around it, leaning on it, and I’d wave him off frantically lest it collapse and kill him. Even now, with his sixth birthday in sight, John is not completely safe from the potential malice of this piece. It could still crush his head or break his arm. But although he treats most of my home like a parkour course set up for his destructive amusement, he’s gotten the message about the table, and he stays well clear.
Like George Nelson’s iconic wood-slat bench, another design that I have in my house and acquired around the same time, the Noguchi table has been knocked-off in massive quantities, particularly during the halcyon days of the Sixties when even Midwestern housewives knew and loved the work of Charles and Ray Eames. Most of the Noguchis you could find in garage sales twenty years ago were fakes.
After the cancellation of “The Brady Bunch” and the subsequent fall from grace of Modern-with-a-capital-M architecture, however, the table disappeared from the homes of all but the most committed, fanatical, or unconcerned. Which is why I found it more than a bit surprising to see a Noguchi in the waiting area of this ultra-contemporary corporate space — and even more surprising to see this tag:
Is that, like, a Certificate of Authenticity or something? Let’s see what Herman Miller has to say:
My initial response to this was predictable: …so now it looks like mine is a knockoff. My second response to this was also fairly predictable: well, this is a good thing, it will encourage more people to buy the American-made original instead of cheap fakes from elsewhere. It wasn’t until I was done with the meeting, trundling down the frozen distance separating the building from my Accord that I started to feel remarkably annoyed by the little signature tag. I’ll try to explain.
Anybody who has ever collected toys or baseball cards or any other worthless but highly satisfying junk like that will tell you that you might start out as a toy collector but you quickly become a box collector. It’s the boxes that really matter because you want the toy to be new in the box and such a condition has the dual conditions of
- in the box
which means that even the best-condition action figure or Shogun Warrior or Star Bird(tm) isn’t worth a whole lot unless you have the box. Note that children, for whom toys used to be made, don’t care about the boxes and throw them out immediately. The box is a sort of meta-item for adult collectors, the secondary market. As such, box collecting is a prime symptom of disconnection from the true purpose of the toy. The child plays with the toy; the adult collects the box. It should be immediately apparent to anyone with any soul left whatsoever that the child is the moral and intellectual superior of the adult in this case and that collecting boxes is a miserable, repugnant pursuit in which your humble author only engages pretty much, um, all the time.
From the moment that Noguchi designed the table nearly seventy years ago, it had two purposes. First, it was a table, serving the purpose that tables serve. You can put things on it. I have a bunch of books on mine at the moment. As a table, it’s okay, but it’s not great. You could get a much sturdier table for less money, obviously.
The second purpose of the Noguchi table is to be aesthetically pleasing. In this task it continues to succeed. It’s interesting-looking and it somehow manages to both fade into a room’s design while also retaining its own identity. There are very few living room designs above the level of “Country Kitchen” that don’t work with a Noguchi.
Both of the above purposes are served pretty well by any table with the Noguchi design. The problem is when you introduce the third, and most relevant to this discussion, purpose: displaying that you have $1,700 to spend on a coffee table. Until recently, only the most committed furniture “anorak” could distinguish between a real Herman Miller table and the better fakes, which could be had for a third of the price. (Really, if you want to know, it’s in the depth, and green tint, of the glass.)
At this point I should probably make a chart or something showing how these three purposes have varied in importance for the average purchaser since 1947. Instead, I’ll just describe a chart, because I’m lazy. The first purpose, being a table, has steadily declined in the past decades. There are fewer people in each household, fewer guests. We live alone, have no children, don’t hold parties. We don’t need coffee tables in our living rooms any more. Many new homes don’t even have a living room, although that’s like saying that many new dress shoes have square toes in the sense that both of these so-called improvements are the near-exclusive province of white trash and/or people who are just arriving to the middle class from either direction.
The second purpose, aesthetics, has been on a slow decline since 1970 or so when the look fell out of fashion and many other interesting coffee tables started to appear. If you go to a place like DWR nowadays you won’t even see a Noguchi on the floor. They have newer, hotter, more contemporary tables to show you. The Noguchi is fuddy-duddy, it was born only thirteen years after Lou Rawls was.
Ah, but the curve for the third purpose is headed up to infinity like the national debt. In 2015, we think of very little but branding, brand impact, and brand prestige. We value tangible goods like watches and cars and furniture and homes primarily for the impression of wealth they create. If you doubt me, look at the sales charts for the Volkswagen Phaeton and Bentley Flying Spur then come back to me. In this context, the Herman Miller tag is critical because it provides proof of the purchase price. A 1948 Zeeland original and a 2012 China knockoff look the same but the new 2015 table has a tag clearly demonstrating that the money was spent and that it was spent recently.
Insofar as the table I saw today was placed too far from any couches to be truly useful, and insofar as all the furniture involved was situated as to be deliberately forbidding — do you really want to be seen sitting around at work in the middle of a massive empty space, doing nothing? — then it becomes increasingly clear that the only purpose of a Noguchi table in 2015 is to provide a platform from which the tag denoting a total expenditure of approximately $1,700 is clearly visible. The tag has become the product, the same way that the true product sold by BMW most of the time is the Roundel itself. The looks of the thing, the function, the history, all mostly irrelevant.
We’ve all become slavish followers of the Five Dollar Milkshake theory. Price denotes value. The value of something is inextricably intertwined with its transaction cost. I’ll show you. There are a bunch of photos all over the Internet of me wearing a black Armani sportcoat. It cost $2799.99 at Saks. Except it didn’t — I paid $499.99 at the Off 5th near Hilton Head. Hell of a deal. I’ve told the story of how I got it to many people, particularly women, and I’m always amused to watch them re-evaluate the item on the fly. It becomes a $500 sportcoat to them, just like a Kenneth Cole or something like that. The toy, which is the sportcoat, doesn’t matter as much as the box, which is the price.
So. To me, this ostentatiously-badged Noguchi table is not, in fact, a Noguchi table. It’s a Herman Miller table that happens to use the design, but it’s no longer a Noguchi design. It’s become a platform for a badge, the visual signifier that elevates the table from $500 to $1700. It’s for the box collectors. Mr. Noguchi didn’t make it for them. He didn’t draw or conceptualize it with a badge. He designed it to speak for itself. Through its elegance, through its simplicity, through its design. The problem is this: in 2015, nobody’s listening closely enough to hear.