Sushi is arguably Japan’s most popular cultural export — and modern design would probably run a close second. So when, in 1988, the two were “combined” in the form of a sushi bar designed by the iconic Shiro Kuramata, well, perhaps it was only a matter of time before the whole thing would be dismantled and shipped abroad.
Now the inevitable has come to pass.
On May 28, some 40 luminaries of the local design world gathered to bid farewell to what was once known as the Kiyotomo sushi bar, a compact, modestly postmodern space tucked into one of the backstreets of Tokyo’s Shinbashi district. Those Japanese luminaries were joined by curators from Hong Kong’s M+, the still-unopened “museum of visual culture” that acquired the bar’s facade and interior and will eventually present them in its permanent display when it opens to the public in 2017.
Absent, of course, was Kuramata himself. The designer passed away at age 56 in 1991, at around the same time that a number of his works of furniture — including his renowned Miss Blanche chair (in clear acrylic resin with paper flowers floating inside) — were acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, thus cementing his reputation as one of the leading designers of his time.
Aric Chen, M+’s curator for design and architecture, explains that Kuramata helped move design beyond modernism’s trademark form-follows-function simplicity.
“He introduced elements of poetry to the doctrinaire Bauhausian version of modernism,” says Chen. “I mean, there is no purpose to having flowers floating in clear resin, but there is a beautiful poetry to it.”
Kuramata had a considerable impact on other industrial, furniture and interior designers around the world, and this fact made him an obvious choice for M+, which Chen hopes will become a “museum of visual culture from an Asian perspective.”
“It’s possible to argue that Kuramata’s playfulness, pop references (the name of the Miss Blanche chair comes from Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire”) and his introduction of a kind of narrative to design influenced designers such as (Frenchman) Philippe Starck and also many Hong Kong and Asian designers, too,” says Chen.
Kuramata’s poetry is on full display in the Kiyotomo sushi bar. Walking through the 70-sq.-meter space, Chen points out how two interleaved, curving panels — one in cedar, one in back-lit opaque acrylic — form a kind of floating, two-layered ceiling.
“Kuramata was also interested in this play of opposites: light and dark, heavy and light,” he explains.
The floor and central counter, meanwhile, are all in polished granite — a no-doubt costly touch that, Chen says, anchors the bar in its 1980s bubble-economy-era context. These stone pieces will no doubt cause the biggest headaches for the contractors who will shortly commence dismantling all components of the interior for their eventual trip to Hong Kong.
Toward the back of the store is a broad, bright red panel of wood that juts into the main room at an angle.
“This is the door to the bathroom. He’s turned it into a visual object in its own right, but one that takes on a function at the moment you choose to use it,” Chen says, sweeping the panel open to reveal a door frame only half the door’s size and a bathroom beyond.
The sushi bar has an unusual providence. After years of intensive use it was acquired, around a decade ago, by Richard Schlagman, the British entrepreneur and former owner of art publisher Phaidon Press. Since then it has essentially sat vacant and, more or less, forgotten — a fact that contributed to its current near-mint condition.
“This is the only one of Kuramata’s interiors that is really left intact,” confirms Kizae Yamashita, the architect who actually worked with the designer in creating the space 26 years ago.
Yamashita admits to feeling a little sad that the bar will be transported overseas. “But I’m also proud to think that something we made all those years ago will be preserved in a museum,” he says.
Chen still has three years to think about exactly how the sushi bar will be presented at M+. The Hong Kong government-owned facility, which is part of the $2.8 billion West Kowloon Cultural District development, will itself be designed by Swiss “starchitects” Herzog & de Meuron, and will boast multiple cavernous exhibition spaces.
One of them, Chen suspects, will eventually house Kuramata’s sushi bar from Tokyo, displayed in such a way that visitors will be able to walk through it.
Chen concedes that “you lose something and gain something” in removing works of architecture or interior design from their original context.
“One of the gains,” he continues, “is that when you place it in a museum, you force people to look at it more closely.”