There are few midcentury modern pieces more graceful than the free-form Noguchi coffee table. First designed in 1939 as a commission from the President of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it was refined in 1944 to accompany an article entitled “How to Make a Table” by designer George Nelson and has endured the test of time to become more popular today than ever. It’s also one of the most commonly knocked-off pieces with unlicensed copies at every price point flooding the market. Like the Eames 670 Lounge and 671 Ottoman, and the Barcelona Chair by Mies van der Rohe, there isn’t a furniture store in the world that doesn’t sell a version of this table.
It’s easy to make – anyone with basement workshop and a saw could knock one out in a few hours. But then you could also copy the Mona Lisa with a few crayons and scrap paper but I don’t think it would come any closer to replicating the real thing.
Isamu Noguchi believed that there is art in the everyday products we surround ourselves with – in his words: “everything is sculpture”. In that spirit, he crafted two pieces of solid wood, curved and interlocking to create a tripod topped by a gently curving, biomorphic shaped piece of glass. The authentic version from U.S. licensee Herman Miller is offered in cherry, walnut, or ebonized walnut with a top of ¾” plate glass – clear – with flat polished edges, not beveled. Early versions included a solid birch option and used a less expensive green glass top. The licensed version measures 16” high by 36” by 50” and carries Noguchi’s signature etched into the edge of the glass top. There’s also a manufacturer’s plate on the bottom that covers his engraved initials.
Herman Miller’s price is $1,594 but shop around as a number of retailers sell the Herman Miller version for as low as $1,145. An early model in ebony with a green glass top is expected to get $2,000 to $3,000 in this month’s auction at Wright Auctions of Chicago. (UPDATE: It sold for only $1,920! A bargain – and obviously a sign of the times given the world economic crisis. A similar table got $6,600 in Wright’s 2007 auction. Read more about it here.)
One of the most popular knock-offs, and one that some consider to be of superior quality because it uses a thicker glass for the top, is made by Modernica and retails for $799. To avoid trademark infringement, the overall dimensions differ from the original by a quarter-inch here and a half-inch there. Other, cheaper, knock-offs can be had as low as $499 new – or $50 or less at a garage sale.
This is a piece that’s so simple in its design that it could be difficult to tell the real thing from a fake at a glance. But beneath the surface, the Herman Miller version is superior in many ways:
Solid hardwoods vs. cheaper woods or particle-board and veneer.
Labor-intensive hand-rubbed stain rather than cheaper thin coat of spray-on stain that shows scratches and blemishes more readily.
Proportioned for perfect balance with a designed-in counterweight vs. cheap copies that are more tipsy.
Better quality ¾” clear plate glass with a polished square edge – not beveled – rather than thinner, cheaper glass.
The very first posting on the excellent Canadian website Modern Planet was about the Noguchi table and makes a plea for resisting the urge to buy an unlicensed knock-off of this classic. This sparked a fascinating comments thread that’s still active after two years and has veered into a general discussion of “real vs. fake”. I tried unsuccessfully to add my comment – so I’ll post it here:
I agree that unlicensed knock-offs have an appeal to people on a budget and are sometimes even better quality. But in my mind, it comes down to this – are you the kind of person who gets as much pleasure from owning a fake Rolex watch or driving a Hyundai because it looks vaguely like a Mercedes Benz as someone who owns a real Rolex or a real Mercedes? If you are, fine. Both watches tell time just as accurately and both cars will transport you in nearly equal comfort. But if you’re the kind of person who appreciates art and celebrates and feels enriched by the art in the everyday objects around you, than I would encourage you to find products that you enjoy that you can afford rather than throw money away on cheap versions of something else. I, for one, would love to own a real Picasso. But I can’t afford one and it would bring me absolutely no pleasure to own a forgery. I’d rather seek out and find a lesser-known artist at affordable prices with the hopes that I might be discovering the next Picasso. If I couldn’t afford a real Noguchi table, I’d find something else that I can afford and hope that it becomes tomorrow’s classic. I DO buy vintage furniture with the hopes that it will hold it’s value – or even appreciate. And I’ve lucked-out a few times. Some Hans Wegner chairs I bought for $500 each from a private party sold for $2,500 each to a dealer. And chairs I didn’t recognize and bought for $100 each turned out to be worth $1,250 each when I sold them after their designer, Milo Baughman, had a resurgence of popularity. I recognize that it’s the copies of treasures like the Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo’s David that make the originals even more widely known and coveted – but I would advise against buying knock-off furniture that’s “almost as good” as (or even better than) the real thing. I bet you’d find it more satisfying to find a lesser known original that fits your budget. It may even prove to be a better investment.