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At the Hirshhorn museum’s new café, it’s okay to spill coffee on the art

Farrah Skeiky
In praise of patina.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Visitors to Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn museum will notice two new impressive sculptures in the lobby today.

Made from the massive root ball of a 700-year old Japanese nutmeg tree, the twin tables are part of an installation designed by the renowned artist-architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, best known for his esoteric black and white photographs. Unlike other artifacts at the Smithsonian’s museum of contemporary art, visitors are invited to touch, sit, and even enjoy their coffee and gelato on the art.

Commissioned to design the museum’s first-ever lobby café, the 70-year-old artist filled the space with “functional art”—a welcome desk, helicoid-shaped chairs, minimalist trash cans, and a handsome metal barista station for the museum’s restaurant vendor Dolcezza. Apart from Olafur Eliasson’s prismatic light sculpture, Sugimoto designed every element, even creating custom fonts for the menu.

Farrah Skeiky

The centerpiece are the two low tables.

Sugimoto says he spotted the tangle of roots at a Tokyo salvage shop years ago and had been saving it for the right project. Seeing the Hirshhorn’s cylindrical building by architect Gordon Bunshaft, he knew he had found the right spot for the rare wood specimen. “I became fascinated by the roots of an enormous tree, which fanned out to form a large circle, and I decided that this was the circle I would install in the Hirshhorn lobby—a symbol of life,” said Sugimoto.

Sugimoto’s tables, illuminated by Olafur Eliasson’s light sculpture.

When asked if he was nervous about museum goers adding nicks to the sculptures or kids clawing at the precious wood with their sticky ice cream hands, Sugimoto says he actually welcomes it. “It’s patina,” he beams, pointing to some subtle discoloration on the 42-year-old museum’s own façade. Sugimoto adds that he intentionally selected brass for the coffee bar, anticipating that it would change over time and use.

Farrah Skeiky
Sugimoto designed the menu fonts too.

Capitalizing on their record-breaking Yayoi Kusama exhibit last year, the Smithsonian museum has been looking for ways to draw more art lovers to the edge of the national mall. “I would love to welcome those visitors back…We really hope that with our partnership with Dolcezza, we’ll build a substantial local community around the Hirshhorn museum,” says director Melissa Chiu.

Chiu explains that said she was first impressed by Sugimoto’s attentiveness to space during the installation of his show at the Hirshhorn in 2006. “We wanted to create a space that was open and transparent and allow people to contemplate art,” she says.

Indeed, the Sugimoto-designed coffee bar looks serene, especially without the hoard of teleworkers on their laptops like in most cafés these days. Chiu has faith that visitors will be in a certain frame of mind and won’t turn the museum’s lobby into the next co-working hub. The free wi-fi, she says, is “an added benefit and not the main feature.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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