During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.
What you see: A unique dining room table designed circa 1948 or 1949 by Isamu Noguchi for Mr. and Mrs. Milton Greene. Wright sold it in June 2018 for $1.6 million against an estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million, a record for a Noguchi dining table.
The expert: Richard Wright, president of Wright auction house.
How often did Noguchi accept commissions? He did do commissioned works. He did a relatively small amount of commissioned furniture. Definitely less than ten.
How unusual is it to have a commissioned Noguchi piece as well-documented as this one? [Milton Greene, who commissioned it, recorded the design and creation of the table and two other furnishings in a series of photos that are shown within the lot listing.] It’s pretty exceptional [laughs]. It’s not unusual to have documentation, but it’s unusual that it’s so prolific. Because it was commissioned by a photographer, we were able to find wonderful photo documentation. We have photos of Noguchi planning the installation, and on the installation day, reshaping the leg of a sofa.
Greene also commissioned what came to be called the Cloud sofa and Cloud ottoman from Noguchi. Were the three meant as a suite of furniture, or did they happen to be commissioned around the same time? The sofa and the ottoman were conceived together. Those elements directly relate. The dining table is unrelated, but aesthetically, it’s his work. They’re sympathetic to each other, but they’re not really designed for each other. [The sofa and ottoman went to auction at some point, but their whereabouts are unknown.]
The lot notes say, ‘in a letter, Noguchi wrote that Greene gave him a Leica camera in exchange for the designing of some furniture for him.’ Was that camera the extent of the payment that Noguchi accepted for the creation of the Cloud pieces and this table? It appears to be. That’s the only documentation we have. Financial records are not available. I don’t know if he gave him cash for the production. Leica cameras are not inexpensive, but they certainly haven’t appreciated in the same way [laughs].
How often did Noguchi use pink Georgia marble? He did a very famous sculpture that’s in the Met in the same stone. It’s in his vocabulary, especially at this time. There was something he liked about the expression of the marble–the color spoke to him. It was not widely used, but he used it before on a major sculpture.
What characteristics mark this as a Noguchi? First of all, the overall form of it–the three legs, the ovoid shape of the top, the sunken planter–but it’s really the overall shape and form of the table that identifies it as a Noguchi.
Is this table the first time he uses a hole or a depression in a piece of furniture? It’s a little hard to know for sure. His formal sculptures have voids. They became present in his sculpture before they were in his designed works. At the same time [as he was creating this table], he was developing a coffee table for Herman Miller that looks a bit like the dining table shrunk down. The bowl [the aluminum bowl in the center] is clever. You rotate it to lock it into place. You do it from under the table–seamless integration into the void. It was designed for flower arrangements in the Japanese tradition. It adds a tension point and a visual focus to the table.
The table’s legs do not match. Is that unusual for a Noguchi furnishing? It’s pretty unusual that all three are different–it may be the only time. It’s like he was thinking out the design as he was making it. If it was in production, he may not have articulated the legs individually.
How do the legs add to the appearance of the Isamu Noguchi dining table? It makes it visually light. It’s not a light table, but it adds visual dynamism and visual lightness that comes from having three legs versus four.
And how does the asymmetry of the top and the asymmetry in the placement of the legs of the Isamu Noguchi dining table add to its appeal? The subtle shape of the top versus the legs versus the void placement creates a composition I find dynamic and pleasing. That’s the artistry of it.
The Isamu Noguchi dining table stands 26 inches high, which is lower than most people would expect. Does that make it hard to use? It does. It requires you to use chairs that have a low seat. Standard height chairs make the table feel low. A standard height table is 29 inches. The consigner lived with this his whole life. He wasn’t six foot four, he was an average height. He never had an issue, never thought twice about the height of it. If the table was closer to a standard height, it might have had broader appeal, but it did just fine as it was.
A 1954 photograph included with the lot shows the table set and with three chairs around it. Did it come with chairs? They are Eames chairs, and that particular Eames design has a pretty low seat. Whether they were designed for the table or paired up with it, I don’t know.
How many people can the table seat? Comfortably, six. When we looked at it in the original house, five sat around it and had coffee and we could have had one more.
Has it been restored? No. It’s really in completely original condition, which is fantastic.
Is it heavy? Yup, it’s heavy. I don’t know its actual weight, but it’s probably 500 pounds. Not insignificant. It [the tabletop] is a serious piece of marble, and a single piece of marble.
Does it show signs of wear? Sure. It had a very nice patina. It’s hard to how polished the stone had been originally. There are small chips around the edge, and no significant stains. The surface had become very matte. The legs had nicks, vacuum cleaner marks. But it had been carefully used for 50 years. The presence of the patina, the feel of it is very organic, very honest.
What is the Isamu Noguchi dining table like in person? It has a real presence. It feels bigger in person. It has some qualities about it that are very hard to translate photographically, but I think [the lot photos] did a pretty good job.
What was your role in the auction? What do you remember of the sale? I was the auctioneer. We had multiple bidders. For us, it was a lot of money. As an auctioneer, it’s not often that I say “One million.” I had to practice my increments before, it was such a big dollar amount.
When did you know you had a record for an Isamu Noguchi dining table? I had a pretty good sense by the time we got over the lower estimate [$1 million]. By selling it, we set a record. It was pretty nerve-wracking. It would have been fine to sell it for $1 million but it was better to sell it for $1.4 million. It better reflected the importance and worth of the table. We worked very hard to present it and tell its full story. To sell it well is gratifying. A lot of thought and care went into this. It’s fun when it all works out.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s just going to always be one of the most special pieces I’ll ever handle. There are very few pieces that you come across and say, “Wow, that’s really special.” This checks all the boxes.
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Image is courtesy of Wright.
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