An apartment as orderly as a bento box

An apartment as orderly as a bento box

An apartment as orderly as a bento box

Uncluttered: The work area that features cabinets and desktops. Right: The kitchen area off the living room. Trevor Tondro/ New York Times

Mishi Hosono and Adam Weintraub, of Koko Architecture and Design in Manhattan, met one of theirs just before their wedding 12 years ago, when Hosono was trying to figure out how to put on her gown. “It was by Comme des Garcons, and we found it on the floor of the Barneys Warehouse Sale,” said Hosono, 43, who grew up in Tokyo but studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where she met Weintraub, also 43, who is from suburban Detroit.

Hosono had purchased the dress without trying it on, and it proved to be more complicated than it looked. So the couple took it to the Comme des Garcons store in SoHo, where Tomoko Akiyoshi, a visual merchandiser from Japan, guided them through the garment’s Gnostic mysteries.

They soon discovered that they travelled in similar circles: Akiyoshi’s husband, Kimio (known as Aki), owns a hair salon on Greene Street frequented by architects like Steven Holl and Calvin Tsao, a former colleague of Hosono. Over the next decade the couples became friends, sharing tips on raising American daughters with a sense of Japanese identity. So two years ago, when the Akiyoshis wanted to renovate the NoHo apartment they bought in 1997 for $475,000, they knew whom to call.

Renovating an apartment, however, is a more complex endeavour than donning an avant-garde dress.

This is especially true when the clients in question have many passions and need space to store everything that goes with them – including a vast assortment of vintage clothing, bulky photography equipment and a six-foot-long aquarium with a living coral reef.

The solution that the architects came up with was both deceptively simple and deeply familiar to their Japanese clients: a design based on the bento box, that cleverly compartmentalised container that separates teriyaki from tuna roll, salad from sashimi. Using this masterwork of micro-architecture, properly known as the obento, as a model, the architects created a multifunctional space that “made use of every little inch” of the 1,300-square-foot interior, Weintraub said. The renovation, which cost $250,000, resulted in an apartment that is “half storage,” he added.

“They live in the 50 per cent of space that’s left.” Sora, 18, and Umi, 15, have sleeping lofts above their closets, and the master bedroom sits on a platform with trap doors on top, where the bedding is stored during the day.

With its bleached bamboo floors, white walls and shoji-like frosted glass pocket doors, the uncluttered loft is as peaceful as a Japanese teahouse. “It reminds me of my grandmother and making tea,” said Akiyoshi, 51.

The obento approach sometimes necessitated a kind of spatial horse-trading: Up a short flight of stairs from the main living area is what Weintraub calls the “Aki module” – an elevated aerie that serves as the photographic mission control for Akiyoshi, 54, with multiple monitors and storage space for his equipment.

The height of the ceiling was calibrated exactly to his height, and the extra inches needed were borrowed from Akiyoshi’s clothing storage space underneath.

“Apart from being on the large side, this apartment could be in Tokyo,” Hosono said. In fact, it is unmistakably Japanese in detail as well as spirit.

The kitchen was designed for the demands of Japanese cooking, with counters adjacent to the sink big enough to hold 20-pound canisters of rice and rice cookers.

Lining the wall of the main room is a perforated drying closet where Akiyoshi hangs clothes after washing them. And a Toto electronic toilet raises its seat in greeting when someone enters the bathroom. But “we usually turn that function off,” Akiyoshi said. “It makes most Americans nervous.”

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