Soundings | The Japanese paper lantern: a Sea Ranch classic


Published by Soundings Magazine for The Sea Ranch


As of recently, there seems to be a deluge of historic imagery from the early days at The Sea Ranch. Between the SFMOMA exhibit, its accompanying exhibit catalogue The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, and the online exhibit by UC Berkeley and University of Pennsylvania, Journey to the Sea Ranch, it’s hard not to feel inspired to bring into your own home some of the style from the early days of our community.


Many of the early homes have as many similarities on the inside as they do on the exterior. Beyond the wood paneling and wooden peg coat racks, the way our homes are illuminated are quite similar. While many of our homes feature bare lightbulbs and round globe lights, (which will be the subject of a future column,) another common light fixture in many of our homes is the humble Japanese paper lantern.


The popularity of these fixtures at The Sea Ranch was based as much on aesthetics as it was economy. The original homes were designed as practical, cleverly designed, economically built second homes. Paper lanterns fit in seamlessly with plywood cabinets and colorful laminate countertops. The soft, glareless quality of light gives our homes a warm, familiar glow, with the round shape evoking our spectacular sunsets. During the day, these delicate rice paper fixtures provide a tactile sculptural element which contrasts both in texture and in color with the wood paneling found in so many of our homes.


There’s also an ephemeral quality to the paper construction, much like the seasons we experience outside our windows. Their origins go back to the years following World War II, where the US government actively promoted the sale of Japanese crafts and industry in an effort to rebuild the war-ravaged Japanese economy. In 1951, Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was traveling through Japanese town of Gifu City when the mayor asked him to help find a way to preserve the local industry of making hand-crafted paper lanterns from mulberry paper and bamboo ribs. The original candle-lit lanterns were used for nighttime fishing, and Noguchi made a 20th century alteration that proved to be a stroke of genius: adding an electric light bulb.

The lanterns are made by the family-run Ozeki & Co Ltd., where they are assembled from bamboo, mulberry paper and glue over wooden forms, which could be disassembled and removed, allowing the lanterns to be collapsed and be shipped flat. Noguchi called these works Akari, a term meaning light as illumination, but also implying the idea of weightlessness. He saw these fixtures more as illuminated sculpture than as practical room illumination.


The design was simple, and thus easily copied. Noguchi sought to patent the round versions of his lights, which he was denied because they were not distinct enough from the traditional fishing lanterns. He ultimately did receive five American patents and 32 Japanese patents for the table, floor and pendant light he designed. Legions of copies flooded the market. “They have flooded the world, even if more through imitation than desire for the true original,” Noguchi wrote.


“This has only forced me to devise what might be beyond imitation.” He kept ahead of the copycats by continuing to design new Akari lanterns variations until his death in 1988. At last count there are more than 200 variations in total.


Back in the Bay Area in 1965, The Sea Ranch sales offices opened, selling homes and lots to an eager public. That same year, the modern design emporium Design Research opened their store in San Francisco carrying Akari lamps and other modern designs for new homeowners to furnish their homes with. Down the road at Fisherman’s Wharf, Cost Plus Imports had been selling low cost imported Japanese housewares along with the round paper lanterns copies since 1958. Both retailers played an integral part in the furnishing of the early homes at The Sea Ranch.


After Noguchi’s death, Ozeki & Co Ltd. has continued manufacture of the lanterns true to the original designs. A conversation between British designers, Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby and the owner of the family-run business resulted in a new collection being launched at the London Design Festival in 2015. The lamps are called Hotaru, meaning firefly in Japanese. They have a 21st century feel to them, with simple forms like two joined spheres. Another form evokes marine buoys, both anchored and weightless, and seemingly an appropriate metaphor for a maritime community like The Sea Ranch.


Sixty eight years on, and the paper lantern’s popularity seems enduring. “They are testaments to imperfection. They’re about humanizing the world,” says Dakin Hart, curator at the Noguchi Museum in Queens, NY. “[Noguchi] saw them as a counterweight to an increasingly mechanized and industrialized society. That’s why it feels like home.”


Authentic Akari Lanterns are available by special order at Placewares in Gualala and start at $75. Soko Hardware in Japantown, SF and Anzen Hardware in Little Tokyo / LA sell lantern copies and are both worth visiting in person.


The Hotaru Collection is available at the twentytwentyone store in the Islington District of London or online at twentytwentyone.com.


Chad is the Creative Director of Framestudio, an Architecture and Design collaborative based out of Oakland. His Esherick designed Mini-Mod includes a $3.00 copy paper lantern. He hopes to upgrade to a Hotaru lantern with the proceeds from writing this column.