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Hiroshi Sugimoto Revamps Hirshhorn Museum Lobby, Includes a 700-year-old Nutmeg Tree

Sugimoto’s Hirshhorn design is the latest to transform the Smithsonian museum on the National Mall.

Hiroshi Sugimoto sits in his and Tomoyuki Sakakida’s redesigned lobby, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (photo by Farrah Skeiky)

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has really been into architecture and design lately. So much so that it seems every time he has a new museum show, he also designs an architectural element for the institution. At the beginning of last year, he renovated the MOA Museum of Art in Atami, Japan, before showing work in the grand reopening exhibition. In the fall, he created a new interior garden space with YUN Architecture for New York’s Japan Society in the lead-up to his Gates of Paradise exhibition. And now that he has a few pieces on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of What Absence Is Made Of, Sugimoto has transformed the museum’s entire lobby space.

As his photography work has made clear for years, Sugimoto has always had a deep interest in the built environment. In 2008, he and architect Tomoyuki Sakakida founded their own firm, the New Material Research Laboratory (NMRL). Since then, the company has designed over a dozen projects, including the three previously mentioned museum commissions, as well as spaces like tea rooms and offices. In its mission statement, NMRL declares its dedication to combining new and traditional architectural methods and materials, preserving the true spirit of craftsmanship in the process.

The Hirshhorn’s rounded building as reflected in a table in Hiroshi Sugimoto and Tomoyuki Sakakida’s redesigned lobby, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (photo by Farrah Skeiky)
Side view of a table in Hiroshi Sugimoto and Tomoyuki Sakakida’s redesigned lobby, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (photo by Farrah Skeiky)

First announced in December, Sugimoto’s Hirshhorn lobby just opened. A design over two years in the making, it transforms the museum’s entrance and lobby area, turning the information desk into a coffee bar, and providing a more inviting seating area next to it. Sugimoto’s armchairs reference both the iconically circular shape of the building and coils of DNA, and the tables are made from the roots of a 700-year-old Japanese nutmeg tree he found 15 years ago. The pattern on the tin and brass coffee bar is inspired by 1930s fireproofing techniques in Tokyo; Sugimoto even created a special font for the menu. Benches stand on legs of the same kid of optical glass used in camera lenses.

In his artist statement, Sugimoto cites the inspiration of the circle, both in nature — represented by the nutmeg tree — and in the manmade architecture of the building, as central to his design of the Hirshhorn space: “I found it fitting to place one of nature’s circles inside this manufactured one so that we might compare the two: notional shapes and natural shapes. Our consciousness finds its proper place balanced somewhere in between.”

Hiroshi Sugimoto and Tomoyuki Sakakida’s redesigned lobby, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (photo by Farrah Skeiky)
Hiroshi Sugimoto and Tomoyuki Sakakida’s redesigned lobby, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (photo by Cathy Carver)
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