The name “SUMO” is a portmanteau of the first name (Sunil) and nickname (Momo) of Studio SUMO’s two principals, Sunil Bald and Yolande Daniels. But it became unexpectedly appropriate when the New York– based firm started designing university buildings for Josai University’s many campuses in Japan. Included in an array of built and pending designs for Josai, there is a museum, dormitory, and school of management whose buildings are connected to each other and the larger campus. “Most Japanese universities are composed of these very inward-looking buildings and segregated departments,” Bald said. “Part of the reason we’ve been asked to do work there is that our interventions allow the university to rethink themselves urbanistically.”
If SUMO’s 15-year practice is unusual for its Japan-U.S. split, it’s also unusual for its trajectory. Most firms graduate from residential projects to institutional and artistic work; SUMO took the opposite tack. Daniels and Bald started collaborating in the mid-1990s, drawing on academic work (Daniels teaches at Columbia, Bald at Parsons and Yale) to win competitions, starting with the MTA Arts for Transit in 1995, and were asked to design the Architectural League’s New New York exhibition in 2000. Their short but high-profile record put them in the sights of Bernard Tschumi in 2000, who invited them to help with a competition entry for a temporary new home for the Museum for African Art (MfAA) in Queens, which built their design in 2001. Several years later, they were invited to design the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art in Brooklyn, completed in 2006.
Lofts and apartment buildings are now a large part of the firm’s repertoire. A Harlem duplex features a trick they first deployed in the MfAA, in which they disguised doors by embedding them in wall recesses. Lessons from an art installation that SUMO created on the history of the shotgun apartment came in handy in 2007, when they were asked to design an apartment block in Miami’s Little Haiti. Seeking to create something that would be both attentive to West Indian culture as well as affordable, Daniels and Bald designed a series of blocks made up of shotgun and Creole manor–style apartments. “Every apartment has a front door and back door that open to the outside,” Bald said, to make it feel more like a stand-alone Creole house and provide cross-ventilation.
With an expanding residential practice, two teaching loads, and the possibility of opening a Tokyo office, Daniels and Bald have a full plate, but they haven’t abandoned their artistic roots. A series of exhibits, installations, and museum designs—from a sculptural folly for a Baltimore museum to a high-tech educational gallery in the MfAA—is keeping SUMO busy and planting the seeds for future inspiration.