Designing for change, Isamu Noguchi, and embracing the “in-between”

4 min read
Lee-Sean Huang
  •  May 4, 2021
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Inside Design will commemorate the year’s cultural moments and holidays through the theme of ‘Looking Back for a More Inclusive Future.’ Each month, we will explore the intersection of design and history through commissioned illustrations and articles. In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Lee-Sean Huang looks to Isamu Noguchi’s story for lessons on how to navigate working within harmful systems. Neethi (above, IG: @kneethee) and Asahi Nagata (below, IG: @asahinagata) provide illustrated homages to Noguchi as well.

My business partner David Colby Reed and I once worked on a design project for New York City. We were tasked with creating new tools to help financial counselors retain their clients, residents who needed help with tasks like making a budget, applying for a mortgage, or consolidating student loan debts. We were not limited to any predetermined format or medium—our proposed design outputs could be digital, physical, visual or experimental.

The data showed that clients who went to at least three financial counseling sessions were more likely to meet their self-defined financial goals.

As a designer, I’m driven by dissatisfaction with the status quo. I always want to make things work better, be more beautiful, and more deeply enrich the human experience. For me, design is inherently political, and when I am invited into a community or institution, I cannot leave elements of the outside at the door. This opportunity felt like the perfect creative opportunity to use my design skills to address systemic problems and make a material social impact for others.

However, David and I quickly realized that our efforts would be constrained by political and economic realities. No matter how innovative we were with our designs offering up budgeting or financial management advice, they wouldn’t make up for the opportunities lost by not earning a living wage or accessing affordable health care. All we could do was design incremental improvements to a public service within a larger system perpetuating poverty and inequality. Nevertheless, we were still excited to pursue the project as a way to bring more design- and community-centered approaches to a public service. We decided that making a small difference at the local level was still important despite the systemic challenges.

This experience isn’t anything new. Designers seldom get to design from a blank slate. We build upon and are bound by legacy systems at the organizational and societal level. We seek to find balance between business needs and user needs. We make choices that grapple with the tensions and trade-offs between “better” and “done” (or at least “good enough for now.”) Our best work lies in negotiating this “in-between” of principled ideals and practical realities.

The “in-between”

I think I chose design as a career because of my life-long experience with navigating this “in-between.” I’m first-generation Taiwanese American, and I’ve dealt with the connection between self and community that comes from where Asian Americans sit in the “racial caste system,” a term used by historian Isabel Wilkerson. On one hand, we have the Model Minority Myth that “celebrates” the success of people like me as a way of invalidating the struggles that other people face in a racist system. On the other hand, Asian Americans are subject to the perpetual foreign stereotype, which runs the gamut from compliments about my English and questions about “where I’m really from” to being told to “go back to where I came from.” There’s also the Bamboo Ceiling, which refers to underrepresentation of Asian Americans in executive management roles, media, professional sports, and electoral politics.

My decisions have been framed by this dynamic between “me” and “we” my entire life. I struggled with learning English—the language of the New country—when I first arrived in America, but now my Mandarin skills—that of the Old—are frozen at an elementary-school level. I immersed myself in music and media production from a young age, but chose to major in political science because of the world’s pressing human rights injustices. Ultimately, I found that design’s in-betweenness could both satisfy my personal creative impulses and provide a discipline for making social impact.

I am privileged by my citizenship, education, and professional success. My goal is to use the privileges afforded to “me” to help the “we.” This has been the driving force behind my efforts to build a public platform as a way of gaining power and influence. I see myself as an outsider who has sometimes earned a place on the inside, and because of that my identity is inherently political in many professional contexts. But often, I feel powerless relative to the scale of problems we face as a society. I cannot solve these systemic issues alone, but I also know that my individual effort does matter. How much, though, is enough for one person to give?

I am not the only person who has grappled with this question. And this is where we can look to history for lessons on how to move forward.

Isamu Noguchi goes to camp

Isamu Noguchi was born in Los Angeles in 1904 to a Japanese immigrant father and Irish American mother. Noguchi spent most of his childhood in Japan (where he faced discrimination due to him being American) before returning to the U.S. as a teenager to continue his education (where he faced discrimination due to him being Japanese). By 1938, he was an internationally-renowned sculptor and designer, even receiving a large-scale commission for the Associated Press building in New York City.

However, things changed dramatically for Noguchi after the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The US was drawn into war in the Pacific, and on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The now infamous policy that forcibly removed people of Japanese ancestry, including US citizens, from the West Coast and some inland areas deemed to be of military importance. The Japanese Americans were placed in what the US government called “war relocation centers” or “internment camps,” although some argue they were in fact concentration camps. The term “camp” has become a colloquial term among Japanese American internees and their descendants.

Because Noguchi was living in New York City at the time, Executive Order 9066 did not apply to him. He tried to use his fame and position of relative privilege to advocate against the policy. He was unsuccessful. In an act of solidarity, Noguchi decided to “willfully [become] part of humanity uprooted.” He believed in the idea of America’s melting pot and that investment in Japanese American creativity and ingenuity could effectively fight fascism. So, armed with an introduction and letter of recommendation from high-level officials in Washington D.C., he voluntarily checked into the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona (which was built on the Colorado River Indian Reservation over the objections of the Tribal Council).

Noguchi planned to work in the camp, designing furniture and creating sculptures from limited materials available. But he wasn’t just focused on his own work—he ultimately wanted to use his privilege to improve the material conditions of those involuntarily interned there. He hoped to create an arts-and-crafts program at the camp which could be replicated at other internment camps, “as a method of vocational training looking towards postwar survival.” He also created a blueprint for parks and recreation areas in the camp.

Upon arrival at the camp, Noguchi quickly realized he was stuck in a new in-between he did not anticipate. It became clear that he would not be allowed to leave as freely as he came. He was granted privileges at camp that were not afforded the other internees, such as the ability to receive newspaper and magazine subscriptions. These privileges created tensions between Noguchi and other internees. While camp administrators otherwise saw Noguchi as just another Japanese prisoner.

Though painful, the time was not unfruitful for Noguchi. The experience of living in the desert with limited material marked a shift in Noguchi’s work. While at Poston, his work shifted from figurative art to the swooping abstract organic forms for which he is now famous. However, despite his work he was unable to realize either the arts-and-craft and park-and-recreation programs.

After a total of seven months and a long bureaucratic process, the US government finally allowed Noguchi to return to New York and continue his work there. In 1944, Noguchi designed his now iconic glass coffee table. Herman Miller began selling it in 1947 and it is still in production today.

Illustration by Asahi Nagata

Creating a more inclusive future

For all his fame and accomplishments, Noguchi could not save his fellow Japanese Americans from the privations of internment. However, his experience at camp helped Noguchi find his identity. “I realized I was no longer the sculptor alone… I was not just American but Nisei. A Japanese American.”

Noguchi’s story was just one of the many radical acts by activists and political leaders working to bring awareness and calls for justice to the issue. In August 1988, just a few months before Noguchi’s death, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 into law, which offered a formal apology and monetary reparations to the surviving Japanese American who were interned by the US government during WWII.

For me, Noguchi’s story is a reminder to embrace this “in-between” of sustained collective action and individual heroics. I am limited as an individual working within a system of oppression, but I still have a duty to continue creating and finding ways to resist while I document and bear witness to our time. It is important to see and propose alternatives to the status quo and to physically be there in solidarity. These are needed forms of resistance, too. Ultimately, “me” and “we” are messily interconnected, and designing for impact requires attending to both.

Other “Looking back to create a more inclusive future stories”

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