Jessica Helfand | Essays

Yoshiko Sato 1960-2012

Yoshiko Sato at the Taj Mahal, 2001 Photo: Shaill Jhaveri

In the late 1990s, my husband and I bought a house in the country, and faced the daunting task of hiring an architect. Having lived in TriBeCa for some years, we’d admired the work of a young couple who’d renovated our neighbors’ loft: among other things, they’d managed to use industrial materials in a residential space, merging the qualities of streamlined and sensuous, modern and comfortable. Michael Morris and Yoshiko Sato were the perfect choice: like us, they were partners in life and in work. Like us, they had a deep and abiding interest in design as a humanist discipline. And as Yoshiko and I used to joke privately, both of us had tall, handsome husbands who never stopped talking, while we took care of business in our quiet and competent way.

Our dear Yoshiko, who was my age exactly, died earlier this month. That she had quietly battled cancer for some time was a shock, and her untimely passing is an unspeakable loss. There have been numerous tributes to her online and elsewhere, and I wanted to add my own very personal one.

Yoshiko was like Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: she was tiny, but she was fierce. A gifted artist and profoundly principled designer, she was a perfectionist, but she had a fabulously dry sense of humor, and could laugh at herself and at others. She was loving and kind, and as her former client, I might say especially patient. By the time we were knee-deep in renovations for our studio, I had a toddler and an infant in tow, and the only way I could participate in meetings was to Rollerblade through the studio with our son on his tricylcle and our daughter on my back. I’d circle in and out of the conversations and Yoshiko would trot alongside me, so I didn’t have to miss anything. She'd sketch with one hand and help me change diapers with the other. She'd hold the baby while she gave directions to the carpenters. Unlike me, she never lost her cool. I envied and admired her for that, among other things, not least of which was the quiet competence with which she made Miso soup.

But my most enduring memory of Yoshiko is connected to Christmas, our first in our new house. I was given the daunting task of picking out our Christmas tree — which as a Jewish girl, let's just say was a first. In my exuberance, I selected something positively gargantuan that obviously had not a prayer of fitting through the door. It was, by all accounts, a hopeless situation. There was considerable laughter at my expense, and suffice it to say, I haven't been allowed to choose a tree ever since.

While our husbands rolled their eyes, Yoshiko went and got a carving knife from the kitchen and proceeded to saw off the side branches so the tree could actually fit through the door. On top of everything else, she was a pragmatist, too.

And she was beautiful. Yoshiko had long, dark hair that looked like a sheet of satin. From the back, she could have been mistaken as a child: she was that little. But she had a big brain, and a big heart, and a big intellect, and a really, really big talent. That such a light could be extinguished so soon is heartbreaking to all those who knew and loved her, and I welcome those of you who did know her to share your own recollections here.  

Rest in peace, dear Yoshiko. We will always remember these stories, and so many more, about you, our tiny and fierce and so very beautiful friend.

Jobs | June 24