Among the many chess sets designed by modern artists in the 20th century, few were as innovative and deeply rooted in tradition as this one by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. It was designed in 1944 during a time of wartime scarcity of quality materials, a situation that both limited and inspired Noguchi. He eventually landed on plexiglass, a new experimental material that was developed to mass-produce clear aircraft canopies and gun turrets.
Noguchi’s chess pieces are mini abstract sculptures and they became prototypes for the sculptures he later conceived in that era. The colors Noguchi chose are deeply rooted in Indian culture—classic Indian chess sets have red and green pieces, sometimes made from rubies and emeralds.
The modern shapes of the pieces, with the exception of the rook, feature headlike forms and arched spines. Noguchi’s Perspex folding chess board evokes Indian and Persian black lacquered chess boards that had round inlays (in place of traditional squares) made from mother of pearl or ivory. Noguchi’s version is designed with red and translucent white circular plexiglass inlays.
Noguchi’s Chess Set was first displayed at a chess exhibition in 1944 at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York, organized by Levy and artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernset. The show also included sets by Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Surrealist manifesto author André Breton.
This newly issued, authorized edition of the Isamu Noguchi Chess Set is made in Switzerland from Perspex plexiglass, including the folding board, which measures 22l x 24”w. The tallest piece, the King, measures 3”h.
SizeBoard: 24l x 22"w
Largest piece: 3" h
Year of Design1944
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Prolific artist and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi created everything from sculptures to furniture to nurse speakers—he even designed sets for various Martha Graham productions. Over 20 of his designs are represented in MoMA's collection, including a coffee table that was a commission from MoMA's president in 1939. His work has been featured in over 40 MoMA exhibitions, including Human Quality in Creative Experience in 1952 and The Value of Good Design in 2019.
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