No two sets of original drawings of Isamu Noguchi's 1949 Rudder Coffee Table were a perfect match, a challenge for Herman Miller's product design team when the furniture maker decided to reissue the piece for its Herman Miller Collection earlier this year. The original tables (shown) were produced by Herman Miller from 1949 to 1951.
Credit: Herman Miller
The lack of a consistent set of drawings was just one of the challenges facing Herman Miller when the Zeeland, Mich.–based furniture maker decided to reissue the Rudder Coffee Table by designer and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Part of the 1949 Rudder Series of tables and stools, the low table displays Noguchi’s signature graceful, rounded wood-veneer surfaces and distinctive material combinations. We spoke with Nicole Burns, product manager for the Herman Miller Collection, and Mark Schurman, director of corporate communications, about revitalizing the iconic midcentury piece.
Why this piece, and why now?
Burns: The Noguchi coffee table had been in production for quite some time and was incredibly popular. People had been asking for something else from the Noguchi product family. We do extensive research to find items that can translate to the market today as easily as they did in the 1940s. During that process, we came across the Rudder table and it seemed like a perfect addition.
What is different about this model from the original?
Burns: We tried to be true to his original intention and materials. We worked very closely with the New York–based Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, that organization’s archives, and our archives. The table stays very true to the species of wood, the color palette, and the chrome usage. We did make sure that we were very environmentally minded as we were re-crafting these components. The chrome manufacturing process is a lot safer today than it was in 1949, for example.
What challenges did this design present?
Burns: We had a couple of original drawings, but there was a lot of variance in their designs. We were trying to figure out which one would be the best iteration to work from in order to get the rudder and the hairpin legs just the right shape and the very distinctive top shape that Noguchi is known for. We pulled a lot of archival pictures and pieces and tried to figure out what the dimensions were. Pulling information on a design that’s more than 60 years old takes a lot of love and care to make sure that you’re being true to the designers’ intention while making it a valid product for today’s market.
Schurman: In other instances, particularly for a piece that has been in continuous production—the Eames lounge chair and ottoman, for example—[it’s easier to replicate] because the drawings exist and the production has been continuous, so there is less detective work involved in making a material change or adding a finish option.
Changing gears, is the prevalence of knockoffs a barrier to determining whether you’ll reintroduce a product?
Schurman: I would say the exact opposite would be true. If there are knockoffs of a Herman Miller design, I think that would give us a greater cause to want to explore that reintroduction. There’s a lot of confusion in the marketplace [due to inaccuracies common to knockoffs]. Part of our challenge is to correct and clarify.
Two chrome, hairpin legs contrast a third, rudder-like wooden one, all supporting an asymmetric curved top, to give the table its name and signature material pairing. Offered in ash (shown) and walnut.
Credit: Herman Miller