But as Sugimoto contemplated the commission, the idea of “just a tearoom” began to metamorphose into something bigger, more ambitious. The couple’s original architect had dropped out, leaving the 7,700-square-foot apartment, located on an upper floor of a skyscraper in the middle of Manhattan, untouched, with bare walls and dusty cement floors. The couple had already visited a few architectural works of Sugimoto’s in Tokyo, including a restaurant in Aoyama and an art gallery in Ginza. They wondered: Would Sugimoto be interested in designing the entire apartment? He agreed, though both sides were unaware that it would eventually require four years, multiple trips to Japan, the shipping of rare materials (stones salvaged from an old Kyoto tram station, enormous planks of ancient cedar wood) from Japan to New York, the flying in and housing of specialized craftsmen from Japan to complete finishing details, the training of New York-based contractors in other site-specific tasks and the dedicated input of several experts, including the Brooklyn-based architects Susan Yun and Felix Ade of Yun Architecture; the main contractor, Xhema of New York; and the former curator of the bonsai collection at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Julian Velasco, who imported and shaped two ficus trees grown in Florida, 75 and 85 years old, for an indoor garden Sugimoto designed.
Today, the finished apartment is a totalitarian vision — every room conforming to the one before it, each made completely in, as Sugimoto calls it, “Japanese style,” hung at the client’s request exclusively with his artwork and furnished with his custom-made furniture and light fixtures. It is unlike any home I have encountered, for a home, even the most luxurious, normally offers at least occasional hints of its owner’s personality, from a misplaced leather couch to a plant that survived a previous marriage to the inevitable smaller clashes in style of two people forced to share a space. But that was not the case here. No, this entire apartment was — as Sugimoto made sure I understood — entirely a work of art.
“AFTER SEVERAL WEEKS,” Sugimoto tells me of his early visits to the apartment, “I’d rather look at the sky. So this was my conceptual idea. It’s so nice to see the clouds.” He’s describing not just the view, which is incredible — from roughly a thousand feet above ground, I am able to see New York City from every direction: to the north, the dense green foliage of Central Park, with pretty Park Avenue a few blocks over; the hazy mismatched skyline of Midtown to the south; Brooklyn and Queens sprawling across the east; and then the Hudson River and New Jersey unfurling to the west — but the apartment’s custom-made blinds as well. They are modeled after traditional Japanese shoji screens, typically fashioned from latticed bamboo and washi, or mulberry paper, though no one in Japan, Sugimoto says mournfully, uses shoji screens anymore; they’re too expensive.