How to Build a Noguchi Coffee Table

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In truth, you can't build a Noguchi coffee table. The iconic table was designed in 1944 by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi for the president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has been produced under exclusive license since 1948 by the Herman Miller company. The original design along with sculpture, stage designs and other works for gardens and public projects by Noguchi can be found in the Noguchi Museum on Long Island. You can buy an imitation piece for as little as $600, which is probably less that it would cost to assemble materials to make your own. If you're a woodworker who's eager to attempt it, though, you can try to capture the spirit of the original using similar materials to create your own piece of art.

Things You'll Need

  • Three-quarter inch thick plate glass 50" by 36"
  • Two inch-thick birch, walnut or cherry wood
  • Three quarter-inch dowel rod
  • Drill bit to match dowel
  • Table saw
  • Sanding and finishing supplies
  • Assemble your materials. You'll need a piece of heavy plate glass, shaped in a sort of bulbous triangle with one side of about fifty inches, one about forty and one about thirty-six inches, with finished edges. For the base, you'll need two pieces of wood, each about an inch and three-quarters thick. Each of them should be about thirty-six inches long and sixteen inches tall. To join the base, find a hardwood dowel and a matching (very sharp) drill bit for the pivot pin assembly.

  • Shape your wood. The original Herman Miller production line included birch, walnut and cherry. Today the tables are manufactured in lacquered, walnut and cherry finishes. The two "biomorphic" table bases are identical, inverted canoe-shaped pieces with tall, pointed "sterns" about fifteen inches tall when finished. The seven and a half inch tall "bows" are notched on the museum piece just at the breaks on the outer curves. The beauty of the piece depends in large part on the attractiveness and skill of finish on these pieces.

  • Connect your finished base. Drill dowel holes just where the top of the curve breaks and turns down on the shorter ends and connect your pieces by inserting a two-to-three-inch piece of dowel to fit the pieces, one long edge down and the other inverted, with the flat side up. The manufacturer sells replacement pins and dowels, so you might be wise to make several to keep on hand in case your table should need a replacement.

  • Dry fit your table. Open the bases almost a seventy to to eighty degree angle so that the base supports the glass firmly. Check the top to be sure that the table top is level. If not, your two bases are not identical. Take the wood pieces apart and sand down the points where the two pieces meet or the points on the "stern" so that the joined end and the two "stern" ends are all the same height. Dry fit again and check the top with a carpenter's level.

  • Do a final fine sanding and finish your wood with a good ebony lacquer or clear varnish. Reassemble. You can't have a Noguchi but you've got something in the abstract spirit of the piece.

Tips & Warnings

  • Noguchi's furniture is done in the "moderne" style, popular just before and after World War II. This furniture fits well in homes built mid-century or later or in rooms designed using moderne, abstract or Scandinavian themes.
  • Genuine Noguchi coffee tables are signed by the artist along the rim of the glass and have a production plate on the base. They retail for a thousand dollars or more.
  • Once you've mastered the biomorphic coffee table, check out Noguchi's other sculpture-inspired furniture designs, particularly the A. Conger Goodyear table, made of rosewood in 1939. It has a kidney-shaped top.

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  • Photo Credit Herman Miller Company
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