Like most sayonara parties, the convivial gathering on May 28, 2014, in Tokyo’s Shinbashi district was tempered by wistfulness. Forty guests, some of whom had travelled from Hong Kong, mingled with design glitterati to bid farewell to a 26-year-old about to test the waters beyond Japan. This was no ordinary departee, however. Leaving to take up residence in Kowloon under the roof of Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture was Kiyotomo, Japanese architect Shiro Kuramata’s sushi bar with impeccable form. Soon the acquisition would be in pieces. “It was a little bittersweet,” says Aric Chen, then the lead curator of design and architecture for M+. He attended that celebration – with Pritzker Prize laureates Toyo Ito and Arata Isozaki, among other Kuramata fans – before Kiyotomo was dismantled, packed into four shipping containers, and later reconstructed as one of the museum’s prize exhibits. “There was a bit of sadness, even frustration, that it wasn’t possible to find a way to keep it in Japan,” Chen says. However, mixed with those emotions was a sense of relief. “We had so many people telling us, ‘We’re really happy that you’re able to preserve it.’” That the sushi bar has been saved as an object to cherish and study, perhaps admire, should delight anyone familiar with other interiors and large-scale architectural installations collected by museums such as the Victoria and Albert museum in London and New York’s museum of Modern Art. In 2012, MoMA installed a then 60-year-old kitchen by architects Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier from Marseilles’ Unité d’Habitation housing development, Corbu’s “machine for living in”. Still, the M+ purchase was not a slam dunk. If even now the idea takes time to sink in for the uninitiated, it should come as no surprise that the plan was perplexing when first revealed. But any questions about why Kiyotomo is special were always to be expected, according to Chen, who says of the museum’s intention: “We wanted people to stop and ask, ‘Why is a sushi bar here?’” The seemingly simple question has a multipronged answer. It should involve history and acknowledge an unusual alignment of people who orbited around Kuramata (1934-91) during and after his short but stellar career. Part of an important generation of Japanese designers who helped change perceptions of the country’s creative aptitude, he embraced East and West and was upheld by both. In the late 1980s, friend and mentor Ettore Sottsass invited Kuramata to join the influential Italian postmodern design collaborative Memphis Group as a founding member. Kuramata’s standing, and the importance of his commercial project, was summed up in a breathless response in March 2014 from the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) to concerns about Kiyotomo’s purchase, for HK$15 million. “Shiro Kuramarta [sic] (1934-91) was regarded as the most influential and widely-known Japanese furniture and interior designer of the late 20th century […] The acquisition of ‘Kiyotomo Sushi Bar’ is an important milestone for M+ in collecting and studying Asian designs.” Fast forward seven years. Chen, now in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, as the Het Nieuwe Instituut’s general and artistic director, smiles like a benign uncle when I tell him of my recent visit to see Kiyotomo. No longer is she on a side street, occupying the ground floor of an otherwise nondescript building. No longer is her future uncertain. And no longer do people simply walk by as she quietly decays. In her new home in the M+ East Galleries, the roughly 656 sq ft (61 square metre) Kiyotomo is impossible to miss. A softly illuminated lantern bearing her name in Japanese stands beyond her main, spruced-up entrance, famous for its blue wall curved like a swoon. On the day of my visit, to help stress-test the museum before its official opening, a polite queue of people forms a dog leg along the sushi bar’s front and side. None seem aware of the concealed katteguchi tradesmen’s door (to the right of the entrance) that they might have slipped through during Kiyotomo’s restaurant chapter from 1988 to 2003. Then, uni , maguro and other Tsukiji fish-market fare would have been taken through this opening to the kitchen at the far end. If some people are puzzled by it, I think that’s great; they should be puzzled by it Aric Chen, former M+ curator The hidden door, while relatively insignificant, is a reminder that in many minimalist interiors, what cannot be seen may be considered as important as that on display. Inside, as I take my time to study the sushi bar’s furniture and fixtures – alongside bold De Stijl-palette colours that pop against warm cedar – that thought is like a comeback that arrives too late. It is what I should have told the stranger who nipped into Kiyotomo for less than a minute before declaring for all to hear: “There’s nothing much to see.” Perhaps that is the point. “Some of [Kuramata’s] other interiors are much more complicated and visually elaborate,” says Chen. “In some ways this was really striking for him because it was so subtle; because he was really making a concerted effort to look back at Japanese tradition. “If some people are puzzled by it, I think that’s great; they should be puzzled by it. This interior, in particular, really calls for one to slow down and pay attention.” It also helps to know what to look for. In a video shown at M+, Kuramata’s originality and attention to detail are applauded. As an architect and interior designer, he was obsessed with new materials; he enjoyed using the ordinary in extraordinary ways; he liked the element of surprise; he created magic. Were visitors allowed to walk through the sushi bar, as was originally mooted, instead of being stopped just past the new orange noren curtains, they might notice quirks and highlights more readily. The red bathroom door that is wider than its opening delights like a joke that never gets old. And its ordinary-looking handle points to fastidiousness. It is glued on rather than screwed in. Kuramata’s perfectionism is apparent elsewhere, although visitors might need 20/20 vision (and the desire) to see what that means: wooden ceiling panels, for instance, are put together to look as one; similarly the five-metre-long sushi counter, formed from three blocks of white marble granite, appears seamless. The material is also interesting because the same is used on the floor, testing the Japanese preoccupation with separating clean from unclean. Even the little lamps turning on and off above the counter have a story behind them. As Chen’s replacement at M+, Ikko Yokoyama, says, Kuramata “hacked” German designer Ingo Maurer’s original design of glass orbs suspended from horizontal cables. The Japanese designer’s tepee-shaped version remains part of Maurer’s range of YaYaHo lamps today. Then there are the bar stools and dining chairs, whose lithe backs arc in deference to a two-layered curved ceiling that appears to float. They are among an estimated 180 furniture pieces Kuramata designed during his lifetime, some of them part of museums’ permanent collections worldwide; the chairs include the steel mesh How High the Moon, the improbable Glass Chair and the irresistible Miss Blanche. In 1991 – the year Kuramata died, aged 56 – the San Francisco museum of Modern Art took possession of the chair named after Tennessee Williams’ flighty Blanche DuBois in the 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire . On display at M+, among other of his designs lending context to Kiyotomo, the chair is dramatic while ethereal, entombing artificial roses within clear acrylic slabs weighing 70kg. The chair’s otherworldliness has also been feted – probably accounting for the unreal €267,000 price one fetched at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018. “What Kuramata was really good at was, through his use of materials and storytelling, bringing a kind of poetry to objects that, of course, transcended their nominal function – a chair is not just something to sit on,” says Chen. “He was able to recast a lot of the developments in design that were happening in Europe through a Japanese lens, so in his hands, light became a material; shadow became a material; heavy things suddenly gained a weightlessness.” In 1988, when Miss Blanche was born and Kiyotomo opened, Kuramata worked non-stop, building and furnishing dreams in a period of go-go development in Japan. Isozaki’s tribute to his friend, included in Deyan Sudjic’s two-volume monograph on Kuramata, reads: “Shiro, in those days which unfortunately became your last – you complained with a wry smile that you had to design a new piece of furniture every day. “You seemed to accept this chronic overwork as your fate. You also said that the work of interior design was destined to disappear, and taking this as your fate or maybe your purpose, you designed and designed.” Those were the frothy years of Japan’s bubble economy. If the walls of Kiyotomo could talk, the anecdotes would be legion. In a business district that worked and played hard, she witnessed the irrational exuberance of the 1980s and early ’90s that led to the end of her beginning. Kiyotomo was not spared when bankruptcies surged as stock and real-estate prices plummeted. She was abandoned by her chef/owner despite her seeming “success”, says Yokoyama, lead curator, design and architecture, at M+ since 2019. He could not have imagined the consequences of his actions. In fleeing financial difficulties, the original proprietor left behind a commercial interior that fortuitously found its way to Richard Schlagman, who bought it in 2004 “on a whim”. The former owner of illustrated-books publisher Phaidon had intended to reopen it as a sushi restaurant, but a decade passed with little progress. “We found the right person but at the very last moment he had an accident, cut his finger off and said he didn’t want to proceed,” Schlagman told Near East magazine in 2016. Schlagman then considered selling the sushi bar’s furniture but, unable to bring himself to do that, came up with another plan. With movable architecture being bought and sold, he realised, Kiyotomo offered possibilities. Knowing that M+ was “searching for something special”, as he told the magazine, a friend, Marc Benda, of New York gallery Friedman Benda, put him in touch with the museum. From failing resort to the Aspen of Asia: how money changed Niseko “When we found out that only four or five of [Kuramata’s] interiors, out of 400, remained, and one of them was available, of course we snatched it up,” Chen says. Kiyotomo’s third chapter began in 2013. That Kuramata has always been more famous for his furniture is corroborated by Chen, who acknowledges that even he was unfamiliar with the Japanese designer’s mostly commercial interiors. He cites as a reason the typically short lifespans of these projects, taking in restaurants, clubs, bars and stores. Of the more than 100 retail interiors Kuramata created for one of his most important clients, Issey Miyake, only one remains, in Aoyama, Tokyo. Among other interiors ripped out is the one Kuramata designed in the late 1980s for Esprit in Hong Kong (at 88 Hing Fat Street, Causeway Bay). The retail clothing chain was among the first to invest in design and architecture, selling inexpensive clothes in expensive-looking surroundings, Sudjic notes. He quotes Kuramata as telling Space Design magazine that Esprit’s floor-to-ceiling mesh display system was intended to make the interior “birdcage-like”, allowing visibility out of the store. Transparency and light again found expression in his distinctive design language, constructed with ephemerality in mind. None of his designs was supposed to survive, which is why, Yokoyama says, Kuramata would not be a fan of Kiyotomo today. In fact, she believes, he would probably “hate” that it has been saved. M+’s acquisition includes Kiyotomo’s facade and entire interior, meaning all furniture (“12 chairs, 10 bar stools and three lacquered tables”), fixtures, walls, floors, ceiling finishes and installations, as listed in WKCDA’s 2014 response. The kitchen and bathroom were not installed as part of the exhibit for space, accessibility and other reasons, says Yokoyama. Despite entering the grand narrative many years after Kiyotomo’s opening, the Gunma prefecture native has already added nuance to Kuramata’s “design intention”. In studying his sushi bar as an object and artefact, she has also painted a lively picture of the interior project’s place in social history. Piles of old receipts, business cards and other paraphernalia included in Kiyotomo’s sale by (and as a partial gift from) Schlagman have helped. These reveal the extravagance and extent of settai – corporate wining and dining – during a bubble era that, unfortunately, went flat. “We didn’t take everything,” says Yokoyama, revealing that when the chef/owner “ran away”, he also left behind sundry items such as his uniform and rubber boots. “We kept important materials to understand the history.” Designer of Japan’s new national stadium has a message Those particulars point to the fact that Kuramata’s interior design was not behind Kiyotomo’s misfortune, Yokoyama insists, taking the question in her stride. “Sky-high” chits – 350,000 yen here, 200,000 yen there, most above 100,000 yen – show how much people spent on meals, what they ordered, and why the proprietor probably went broke. “Those days, if you were a regular [you might say], ‘ Tsuke de yoroshiku ,’” she explains, referring to the promise to “buy now, pay later”. But not all customers settled their bills. That was true also of the owner. Fish-market transactions, which make up another stack, speak volumes. “You see this bad money, cash-flow problem?” Yokoyama asks. “Customers are not paying; he’s buying, but he’s also not paying.” A third pile shows who patronised Kiyotomo. Business cards reveal the names of top managers from corporate behemoths (the Mitsuis and Mitsubishis), although CEOs and other C-suite executives would probably have dined in Ginza, she says. Yet another collection, of magazines, includes speciality publications for sushi restaurant proprietors buying everything required for the business. Think of similar sales catalogues for instant Irish pubs – filled with sepia photographs of Ireland and ole bottles of whiskey – and a picture quickly forms of the type of cookie-cutter sushi-bar design that could have been Kiyotomo’s fate. Not for her were interiors cheerfully decorated with paper lanterns, indigo curtains at the front to push through. “If you look at the style that was popular,” says Yokoyama, “absolutely nothing looked like Kiyotomo.” That fact was not lost on Ishimaru. Two craftsmen employed by Kuramata’s favoured contracting firm ended up working on Kiyotomo three times. They built her in 1988, took her apart in 2014 and remade her this year. They also devised a meticulous system to number and label each piece, orientation included, to ensure the successful completion of the puzzle. But the company was initially reluctant to return to Kiyotomo because of the project’s level of difficulty. It pushed back even after completing the penultimate chapter – because by the time the sushi bar was ready to be rehabilitated, Covid-19 had arrived. When further delays would have caused an insoluble bottleneck, Yokoyama says she had emotional conversations with the team from Japan, who finally agreed to serve Hong Kong’s 21-day quarantine in a hotel, plus two weeks in Japan on their return, to finish the job. Eleven people, two fewer than planned, made up the team from Japan, Yokoyama says. Also quarantined at the Dorsett Wanchai was Chicago-based Sara Moy, the M+ conservator whose intermittent trips to Tokyo from Hong Kong, over four months in 2014, helped prepare Kiyotomo for departure. Among the most stressful procedures was the removal of the floor tiles. “My attitude was like, holy s***, how much is going to break when they dismantle this? How much of it are we going to have to fix or reconstruct?” she says. There were also items that were not “salvageable”, she remembers, “in which case [the Japanese crew] left things aside until I arrived, so that we could make a sort of a concerted effort to decide what to do next.” Moy later exchanges the word “salvageable” for “presentable”. When it came to the distinctive facade, she says, after years of exposure to the elements (and “dogs peeing on the front”), it had to be “quite modelled”. Returning it to its original beauty required restoring hammertone panels and the midnight-blue wall, which itself offered insights into Kuramata’s modus operandi. Three blues discovered in the process suggest that paint was mixed until Kuramata was satisfied the correct shade had been achieved. “They were so similar,” Moy says, adding that the colour matching came down to her deciding what was close enough. “These things took days to achieve.” Other tasks required considerably more time. To remake a broken room divider with the opal glass once popular but no longer manufactured, she and Yokoyama embarked on an extensive hunt that again took them back to the 1980s. Eventually, the original maker, Mihoya Glass, located an old piece, albeit thinner than the damaged pane. Then came the question of geometry. Old photos of Kiyotomo’s dining area show two similar barriers. Now one rectangle is paired with another rectangle topped with a semicircle. At some point Kuramata had changed his mind. Such details probably fascinate only the finicky. But in response to another recent visitor to Kiyotomo, who carelessly remarked that the “new” sushi bar was “95 per cent of the original”, Moy says: “That’s absolutely meaningless. […] In this particular project it’s about the entirety of the space and putting it together. Authenticity is about it as a whole.” Completing Kiyotomo also meant, in some cases, preserving the patina of age (floor tiles remain stained in high-traffic areas) and respecting incongruities. When the acrylic ceiling panels came down, Moy was surprised to discover film attached “haphazardly”. Compared with the precision elsewhere, it did not seem to belong because edges were not straight and there were bubbles in the film. She concluded that it was installed as an afterthought to diffuse the light. Of course, visitors would have to strain to see the film, since cleaned. That goes for the results of other remedial work, although Moy says that there was less damage in the process than anticipated. She adds that conservation is not about making things like they were but “providing some sort of cohesion and story”. Yokoyama hopes Kiyotomo as a design object succeeds in other ways. “It’s not about just, ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful sushi bar and Kuramata is important,’” she says. “I want the visitor to think about the commercial space.” Emphasising the importance of architecture to life, she encourages visitors to pay greater heed to the built environment, especially to short-lived commercial spaces. “I hope they will start to look at their favourite cafe, or even a shop on the way home, and perhaps see them in a different way,” she says. So why is a sushi bar on the second floor of M+? For all the reasons above and more. A trove of secret photographs discovered in the office is part of the answer. “Of its original construction?” I ask. “Of partying,” Chen replies, laughing. “Let me just say there was a lot of ‘fun’ going on in its day. Some of these photos are definitely not fit for publication.” Kiyotomo is like a gift that keeps giving.