We’re sitting in your just-finished studio. You have this mobile by the artist Alexander Calder, which is interesting considering that you designed the Calder Foundation’s headquarters.
When this space reared it’s head, I put all of my effort into making it a reality for us. It’s the perfect dialogue, coming off the Calder Foundation. It’s hard to actually design for yourself because you question everything.
Is your mindset different when you’re working on cultural projects versus restaurants or hospitality?
The mindset isn’t necessarily different, but the ingredients that you have to react to, the concerns that you have, and the experience that you’re creating are, slightly. We go into it thinking about both the physical needs and also the feeling of what it’s like to be in the space.
You have a strong interest in food and have designed a lot of restaurants. Has that always been the case?
Yes, food is in my DNA. It’s about the performance, ritual, and experience. I learn a lot from my chef friends. There’s a strong connection between cooking and architecture: creating something from a set of ingredients so that it becomes something else.
Can design influence taste?
When design and food are done well, it’s a holistic conversation. When they’re not in sync, I always feel like something is missing. Now, there are plenty of spaces that aren’t beautiful in the world but have amazing food experiences. Design doesn’t have to be world-renowned or groundbreaking—it’s about an ambience.
Is there a cooking tool that you can’t live without?
I obsess over objects, whether they’re in the kitchen, studio, or somewhere else in my home. I really appreciate Sori Yanagi, the Japanese industrial designer. There’s a pair of very simple tongs he made from the 1950s or ’60s. The form, the way they sit in your hand, the beautiful shape. Priceless.
You can use them for anything, and that’s genius.
What’s your favorite type of food?
Sushi. It seems cliché, but it has the fewest ingredients, and it’s about the purity of the material. Tuna is tuna, mackerel is mackerel, squid is squid. In my architecture, wood is wood, metal is metal, stone is stone. You don’t try to twist that elemental quality of it, but you try to twist how people perceive it.
You could be describing your style.
I’m drawn to things that are elemental and simple. I’m obsessive about how quiet it can be, but with quietness being strong.
If you were a food, what would it be?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question.
I’d be an avocado because I feel like I’m not polarizing. An onion, people love it or hate it. Maybe you’re a pepper …
I don’t like the shape of peppers. I think there needs to be something more pure about it. I’d be an egg. They have symmetry.
In your work, you labor over tiny details that some people might not even notice. Why?
I’m detail-oriented to the extent that I can’t sleep if something is a little bit out of place. Sometimes, you’ve got to let it go. In the end, I think details matter.
Prior to launching your firm in 2004, you worked with and for some very accomplished architects and designers. Let’s play a quick game of word association:
You designed Daniel Boulud’s home kitchen. Was that a nerve-racking exercise, since he’s a professional chef?
Kitchens are personal. What I love about working with our clients is that every personality is different. In Daniel’s case, it was a kitchen for his house. We didn’t want it to be about him being a chef. It was about the realities of day-to-day life. Of course, we put in a few extra tricks and toys.
Imagine you’re stuck in traffic in an Uber, and can pick your fellow passengers: a chef, a designer or an architect, and a public personality. Who would you choose?
Oh, my gosh. Oscar Niemeyer. Windows rolled down, cigar. Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe: He’s personable and has changed politics in Japan, making the country more global. And Daniel Boulud. Put Daniel in any moving vehicle, and it’s a party.
You’re about to finish your first ground-up architecture project, a visitor’s center for Caesarstone’s U.S. factory in Georgia. What’s your dream project?
I’m very grateful for where we are right at this moment. The dream project really starts with the client. If you do good work, the dream client will come. Perhaps we’re already working with them.
For more food for thought, check out Stephanie’s #NYCRestaurantWeek picks here.
Above: Scenes at Stephanie Goto’s Manhattan studio.