Kengo Kuma: “I’m not at all attached to objects”


My personal style signifiers are minimalist and comfortable clothes – black jackets, sometimes signed Issey Miyake, and always T-shirts. My clothes are like my own creations: sober and simple.

The last thing I bought and liked was a Danish chair for my furniture collection. The design is human and intimate. I have Mies van der Rohe and Hans Wegner chairs; architects often like uniformity but I like experimenting with different styles.

Collection of vintage Kuma chairs © Kaita Takemura

The place that means a lot to me is The Opposite House in Beijing – although I’m slightly biased as it’s my own design. It’s a hotel, but the use of natural materials like wood and stone makes it cozy and warm. It is an oasis. Everything is minimal — a stainless steel pool, wooden water basins — to make one feel serene and uncluttered.

A bathroom at The Opposite House, the Beijing hotel designed by Kuma

A bathroom at The Opposite House, the Beijing hotel designed by Kuma © The Opposite House

The swimming pool at The Opposite House, Beijing

The swimming pool at The Opposite House, Beijing © The Opposite House

The design that most inspired my work is a set of black ceramic tiles given to me in China. These influenced my design for the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, especially the gray roof. I like the beauty of Chinese ceramics, and the materials that are of a place.

The best book I’ve read in the last year is first person singular by my good friend Haruki Murakami. His novels have a kind of tunnel structure and I apply this same design philosophy to my buildings. We inspire each other.

Books by Haruki Murakami, a friend and inspiration to Kuma

Books by Haruki Murakami, friend and inspiration of Kuma © Kaita Takemura

Kuma as a young boy with his grandfather

Kuma as a young boy with his grandfather © Kaita Takemura

My style icons are farmers. I like the work clothes and the simplicity of this local vernacular. My grandfather taught me how to grow vegetables and was a mentor to me. Another icon is Sen no Rikyu – a 16th century Japanese tea master who elevated the ritual to an art.

The best gift I’ve given recently was a sketch, for a client, made on a tenugui “handkerchief” – a gift napkin used to wrap presents. I like to draw on tenuguis. They are applied with a special dyeing process and have a rough texture, but are elegant nonetheless.

The architect's sketches on the tenugui napkins

The architect’s sketches on the tenugui napkins © Kaita Takemura

And the best gift I’ve received is a huge shipment of vegetables from the mayor of Sakai-shi City in Osaka Prefecture. I design small buildings for the community there, and as a thank you, he gave me all kinds of fresh produce – eggplant, cucumber, ginger – all of which were irregularly shaped, not shiny like supermarket produce. They were a different kind of delicious.

The last music I downloaded was by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who worked on The Last Emperor. We are long time friends and I was influenced by his music. It remains very contemporary.

Kengo Kuma at the Tokyo office of his eponymous firm
Kengo Kuma at the Tokyo office of his eponymous firm © Kaita Takemura

In my fridge you will always find Japanese sake, especially old sake from the Masuizumi label. They make two- and five-year-old sakes that are full of unique flavors. You will also find genmai brown rice which has a rich nutty flavor.

The works of art that changed everything for me, they were Japanese gardens. These are, to me, more spectacular than any painting. Muso Kokushi was a 14th century designer who influenced my own work so much – his use of moss and stone was wild and stunningly beautiful. He is considered a “national Zen master”.

I recently rediscovered funazushi, a type of fermented sushi that was popular before refrigeration. Some can’t eat it because of the smell, but I especially like the crucian variety. You won’t find this in Tokyo, but rather in seaside prefectures such as Toyama-ken and Fukui-ken.

Japanese sake – a staple in Kuma's fridge

Japanese sake – a staple in Kuma’s fridge © Kaita Takemura

The pencils that Kuma carries everywhere with him

The pencils that Kuma takes everywhere with him © Kaita Takemura

The only artist whose work I would collect if I could is not so much an artist as an art form: Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. These scrolls are impressive; I love the contrast of rice paper and ink.

The grooming staple I never part with is Hatumugi rice soap. I have tried many others but this is the best. It is made with seeds and is very cleansing.

One indulgence I would never give up is… Nothing. My tastes are simple.

One item I would never part with is… Nothing. I am not at all attached to objects.

Kuma founded Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990
Kuma founded Kengo Kuma & Associates in 1990 © Kaita Takemura

My favorite room in my house is my terrace in Tokyo. I love outdoor spaces and I have a collection of all kinds of plants here. Every morning small birds come to feed and it is a serene setting.

In another life, I would have been a veterinarian. I love animals, especially cats.

The best advice I’ve ever received came from a university professor who said: “Do not refuse anything, accept everything. He encouraged me to be open to all new things – places, people, foods. We traveled together in the Sahara and it was so revealing.

The best memory I brought home is a cheap classic Chinese shelf that I bought from some store in Beijing. It is now in my living room and contains all my memories. I travel the world – we have projects in over 30 countries – so my taste in souvenirs is eclectic.

I have a collection of rice papers from all over Asia. I have lots of different textures, all in different shades of white, and each relates to a specific place. I use them to make photos with pen and ink.

A Kuma T-shirt bought in a small shop in Okinawa-ken

A T-shirt that Kuma bought in a small shop in Okinawa-ken © Kaita Takemura

The last item of clothing I added to my wardrobe was a T-shirt with a picture of a cat that I bought in a small shop in Okinawa-ken. I love cats and quirky things that aren’t mass produced, and this t-shirt is fun and comfy.

The things I couldn’t do without are pencils. I draw whenever an idea comes to me, so I carry pencils everywhere with me, in all my pockets. I don’t care which brand, as long as I have a piece of paper and a pencil handy…

The buildings that changed everything for me are by Frank Lloyd Wright. He came to Japan and found the essence of our culture in a way we couldn’t. This was reflected in his buildings, especially Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania home he designed in the 1930s. It literally brought me to tears.


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