For the Pigment Store in Tokyo, Kengo Kuma Thought Like An Artist
A gritty warehouse district with little to recommend it beyond the fresh breezes that blow in from the bay. That was Tokyo’s Tennozu Isle a decade ago. Fast-forward to today, and a neighborhood that was once an afterthought is emerging as a waterfront destination, somewhere to eat, work, and live. Industrial buildings are being transformed into bakeries and brewpubs, walls covered in freshly painted murals.
Driving much of this change is Warehouse Terrada, which has been in Tennozu Isle since the 1950’s. Already offering museum-caliber art storage, the company has moved into a new phase by opening Pigment, an art-supply shop like no other. With 4,200 pigments as well as 600 paintbrushes and 50 types of rare glue for sale, this is an artist’s dream. Non-artists come, too, just to admire the interior by Kengo Kuma & Associates—recently in the news for participating in a much higher-profile project, the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Warehouse Terrada’s forward-thinking CEO, Yoshihisa Nakano, and Kengo Kuma, old friends, were on a business trip to China when they saw ancient cave paintings and met with conservators who lamented that traditional Chinese pigment techniques have all but disappeared. To the two travelers’ surprise, they learned that Japan, having originally acquired its pigment know-how from China, is today regarded as the repository of expertise as well as the best resource for everything from handmade washi paper to delicate ink brushes. “It was a revelation,” Kuma says. “The richness of the techniques used in Japanese-style painting, nihonga, isn’t widely known at all.”
Without the small manufacturers all over Japan that still make these very specific products, there can be no continuation of the pigment tradition. Nakano was inspired to take action by bringing them together under one roof at Pigment. An art professor would consult on the merchandise. Kuma, naturally, would handle the interior.
His starting point was a dynamic suspended canopy in bamboo. Artisans from historic Kyoto—regular collaborators with the architect—sourced, treated, and configured the lengths of bamboo, giving the canopy an undulating form that immediately warms up what had been a functional box, then extends outside to identify the shop to passersby. “After that, we kept things simple and focused on texture rather than decoration,” he says. “This shop is not a luxury boutique. It’s about showcasing the tradition and techniques of the pigments.”
Narrow bamboo shelves hold the thousands of pigment jars. “This is a place for artists, and I thought it should have a workshop feel,” he continues. “The display of the pigments and brushes is very practical. It’s easy to see the goods.” Though not the price tags—there are none. However, the staff can talk knowledgeably about the stock, as the manager is a trained sculptor, and the salespeople are mostly art-school graduate students. An art installation composed of washi paper, one of the only hints of adornment, enlivens a partition at the entry. But it’s the wall of pigments that’s the real showstopper: cochineal reds made from dried insects, oxidized coppers with the most fractional color differences, other metallics rarely seen in such small quantities. “People know that this many colors exist, but they are surprised to see them all in one place,” manager Taichi Iitsuka says. “We’re getting visitors not only from Japan but also from all over the world.”
Drawers pull out to reveal hundreds of brushes, one made with peacock feathers, others from goat’s hair or squirrel fur. There are animal glues from the castle city of Himeji and wispy metal foils from Kanazawa, not to mention antique ink stones and dozens of ink sticks, both for Chinese sumi-e ink-wash painting. For visitors who want to hone their technique, from beginners to professionals, Pigment holds classes in a minimally furnished open studio.
The studio’s long tabletop is bamboo, and slim chairs, Kuma’s own design, are beech.“ With the bamboo of the table and canopy being very light, we couldn’t bring in heavy pieces,” he explains. Floorboards are a blond oak.
While Pigment brings cultural depth to Tennozu Isle, its reinvention as a whole continues. “This place has a special location, between Haneda Airport and the city center, and beautiful waterways, yet people are only now discovering it,” he says, adding that he is currently at work on a master plan. “We’re activating the waterfront, redesigning the sidewalks, and bringing more of a ‘lifestyle’ atmosphere. Step by step, we are trying to change the neighborhood.”
He is already well on the way. On one of the surrounding canals, he has already built what he calls a “floating box,” a wooden events space with a striking sail. And a museum for architectural models will open soon.
Project Team: Makoto Shirahama; Masaru Shuku; Masahiro Minami; Ayaka Ono: Kengo Kuma & Associates. Lightmoment: Lighting Consultant, MEP. Ohno-Japan: Structural Engineer. Art Create Co.; Marukou Construction Co: General Contractors.