In the 1950s, smoking was still considered glamorous, and ashtrays were mainstays inside American homes and universal accessories on tabletops. In some ways, ashtrays are also a perfect design object—aside from the unhealthy habits associated with them, of course—as they’re small-scale manifestos of the people who created them. And for midcentury sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, an ashtray was a possible big break.
“He wanted to get rich by making ‘this silly little trinket,’ as he called it,” says Dakin Hart, curator of The Sculptor and the Ashtray, a new exhibition at the Noguchi Museum, in New York City, on view through August 23.
Before Noguchi found success with his paper Akari lanterns, before his coffee table became an icon of midcentury design, and before his monumental parks and playscapes became beloved public spaces, he was a struggling artist trying to make ends meet while doggedly pursuing his true life’s work: redefining what sculpture is and exploring how it can mediate the relationships people have with the world around them. To Noguchi, all environments could be considered sculpture.
Noguchi took a rigorous approach to his work, whether it was set designs for Martha Graham or conceptual landscapes, and was deeply obsessed with the craft and technology of fabrication. His work on ashtrays—humble objects familiar to and used by many—presents an accessible and relatable avenue to understand his worldview.
“We are really trying hard not to celebrate smoking,” Hart quipped during a walkthrough of the exhibition. “What we’re doing is celebrating Noguchi’s incredibly expansive idea of what sculpture was, which, at the time, was revolutionary and very different. Noguchi really wanted to cover the full spectrum of sculpture affecting life, and we have the most quotidian end of the spectrum with the ashtray.”
Like much of Noguchi’s work, the two ashtrays he designed—a biomorphic glass bowl and an industrial-looking metal version—were never produced. Curators at the Noguchi Museum discovered the designs while digitizing the artist’s vast personal archive for publication to a publicly accessible website in November 2019. They came across research for the designs, photography of prototypes, personal correspondence in which Noguchi talked about the project, and patent drawings. But the real find was an unpublished magazine article from about 1944 explaining his creative approach: “Sculpture is no good if it’s just put into a gallery,” he said in the story. “It must be part of daily living.”
“[Noguchi’s] interest was in shaping civic life,” Hart says. “That’s what he was really inspired by, and he saw sculpture as a tool for how to do that. ... Even though he demeaned [the ashtray] with the phrase of ‘silly little trinket,’ he was thinking about how to shape the ritual of togetherness through the ashtray. It’s a modern hearth.”
Noguchi began his ashtray project by questioning what a really good one would be in terms of shape, materials, and use. He started with the requirements first: big enough to hold lots of cigarette butts, enough space to rest multiple cigarettes without them rolling off, something to extinguish the cigarettes, and a design that looked good—then began exploring forms that would meet the criteria. He ended up with an asymmetric, shallow hand-blown glass bowl with a small lip around the edge.
“Then Noguchi basically called it garbage because, he said, in the end it just sort of looks like every other ashtray, and he was displeased by that,” Hart explains. “So he sort of flipped and decided to go completely the other way and produce something that’s much more industrial. As he said: If you don’t take advantage of America’s capacity for mass manufacture and industrial manufacturing, you’re missing the trick.”
The second “perfect” ashtray Noguchi designed was square-shaped and made from metal. It came in two parts: a holder and a removable bottom with raised pegs that looked like bullets. Smokers could rest their cigarettes on top of the pegs and when they were done, they could stick them vertically between the pegs to extinguish them, or tamp them on the top of the pegs.
“He wrote to Buckminster Fuller asking if he could have permission to call it the ‘dymaxion ashtray,’ which is so totally wonderful and goofy,” Hart says. “The concept of dymaxion was all about dynamic efficiencies and he felt like he had nailed it with this ashtray.”
Noguchi tried for several years to get a manufacturer to produce his ideas, but never found one. Even though he designed his ashtray specifically for industrial production, manufacturers thought it was too complex to make.
“The irony is—and this is sort of an ongoing story of Noguchi—that he designs something for mass manufacture, but he wasn’t willing to do what it would take to make it mass manufacturable,” Hart says. “He would have had to simplify it in ways that he didn’t want to. He ran up against the fact that he hadn’t made efficiently producible designs, even if the work was the most efficient-to-use design imaginable [to him].”
Before this exhibition, Noguchi’s ashtray ideas lived only on paper. The sculptor’s archive only included photographs and drawings of the ashtrays he made and the museum decided to fabricate models based on them so visitors to the museum could see a realized version of the designs.
“Between these two ashtrays, you get this incredible view of the sort of bipolar universe in his mind of the natural and handcrafted, and the industrially produced and manufactured, the technical and the more intuitive,” Hart says. “Noguchi absolutely is in the synthesis of those two things. Those two states, those two ways of thinking.”
But what did the sculptor himself use to ash? A simple clamshell he likely found on a Long Island beach and the Cubo tray from Italian designer Bruno Munari, both of which appear in archival photographs of Noguchi in his Long Island City studio.
“I think [Munari’s design] outdoes Noguchi’s—if his [had ever been] produced,” Hart says, holding up the simple red, plastic cube with a metal insert that slides out to discard ashes. “This is actually an incredibly simple and efficient design for cleaning. And it’s still produced today.”