Takashi Sugimoto, visionary founder and president of Super Potato Co. , is voluble and candid, but he's not much given to parsing his work. Take the soaring, all-wood chapel and the serenely austere Shinto wedding shrine, two spaces he conjured at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo. "What can I tell you about the concepts for these designs?" Sugimoto asks. "There's nothing more to say than what was created."
If these two projects are difficult for Sugimoto to express in words perhaps it's because each represents an intense distillation of his firm's multifarious international achievements, which are principally in the hospitality realm. The powerful, rude timbers of the chapel and the refined grid of the shrine lie at opposite ends of the Super Potato aesthetic spectrum, but both interiors display the firm's trademark touch: the imaginative use of materials, the establishment of a precise mood, and an immaculate sense of rhythm.
Begun in Tokyo in 1971, Super Potato has the reputation of being Japan's first commercial interior design office. Legend has it that Japanese developers at the time thought "interior design" was a line item in the general contractor's bill. Sugimoto interjects: "It wasn't just the developers who didn't know about interior design. Nobody knew." But even he didn't come to the profession directly.
Raised in Kochi on the island of Shikoku, an area of great natural beauty and centuries-old customs and traditions, Sugimoto graduated in 1968 from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, regarded as the country's top art school. He studied metalworking because, he says, "It was the department with the fewest students." But his studies deepened his interest in the beauty found in irregularity and imperfection-a truly Japanese aesthetic-and he developed a passion for salvaged industrial materials and recycled junkyard finds. After an educational trip to Europe, Sugimoto founded Super Potato, the quirky name reflecting his college nickname.
Asked to define the philosophy behind his practice, Sugimoto often refers to a trifecta of ideals: creation, communication, nature. "I work at creating places that allow communication between people and incorporate a sense of nature," he explains. "But not nature simply as it is." This last distinction was memorably demonstrated in Tokyo's Shunju Akasaka, a restaurant he designed in 1990 where diners sat at a counter facing a small internal garden set behind glass. This is nature under the human hand, and it's an important element in any Super Potato project, whether expressed by a lone tree in a vitrine at the center of a restaurant or the thick slab of roughly hewn cherry, full of knots and cracks, that served as a counter at one of Super Potato's earliest designs, the tiny but legendary Radio, a Tokyo bar from 1971.
"Radio was a place where my friends and I got together and had a few drinks," he says of the nine-seat watering hole. "Then, eventually, other people would come in, not expecting the unusual design, and we would all wind up talking about it." Ever since, Sugimoto has kept the communicative aspects of his interiors firmly in mind. Sometimes this has led to bold, theatrical gestures such as the open kitchen as dining room entertainment, an idea he pioneered in 1998 at Singapore's Mezza9 restaurant, his first big international success.
But Sugimoto sees the whole designed environment as communicative: the way lighting governs moods and feelings; how the size and shape of a space determines its character, be it upbeat or mellow, playful or romantic; and, above all, the sense of connection to other periods, places, and people that recycled materials and salvaged objects create. One of Sugimoto's favorite means of introducing such evocative layering is through his "accumulation screens," partitions or panels composed of such materials as vintage glass bottles, antique farm tools, old machine parts, or other industrial detritus. A screen at Stripsteak restaurant in Las Vegas is dotted with scavengered computer components reproduced in fiberglass-reinforced plastic-as rich, compressed, and beautiful a metaphor as you'll find in that city of the future.