Ben & Ryohei

Writer, Educator, Reader

Artfairs Coordinator at Artsy, Shoes Collector, Arugula Lover 

Last time I saw Ryohei was about a year ago at the Artsy afterwork party. I remember I was annoying and pestering him to get me one of their tote bags. Since then we hadn't had the chance to catch up. I was excited when he and Ben accepted to participate in our project. I knew there will be many - and indeed there were- many stories to be told. Their sunny apartment in Astoria is like a cabinet of curiosities; meaningful, gorgeously curated objects that they have acquired, inherited or found. While I was sniffing around, they lit Japanese incense, and served us a lavender tea with a chocolate. Could not have asked for more. 


Ryohei: When we moved in here Ben was still in Israel staying with his family, and I came here with the broker and saw this alcove, and i thought it’s perfect for books. We thought, well let’s pile them there until we get shelving from Ikea. Ikea is in Red Hook, and we don’t want to go that far, so we still haven’t gone. The complicated thing is how to get the books out!

Ben: I was interning at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books, and I always got books. That’s why our collection kept growing and growing and there’s a lot of orange. We didn’t have this many at first!

R: It’s kind of divided in half, the left half is mine and the right half is Ben’s. But it’s also mixed.

B: All the books in the front are the Penguin books. The ones in the back you can’t really see, but they’re from my collection at home. I brought only some of my books, the ones I haven’t read yet; I have plenty more. I’m actually going to the Brooklyn Heights library later to get more books.

Toulouse - Lautrec

B: It is a copy of a Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a man teaching a woman how to cancan in a bar. It was my grandmother’s. I didn’t realize how old it was; at least from the 40s. She lived in a town called Subotica in Northern Serbia. In 1948, Tito told the Jews if they wanted to immigrate to Israel they could. My grandmother's parents were quite well off before the war, so they decided to relocate. They were allowed a small amount of belongings to bring along. They brought few paintings and this is one of them. She chose that one because of the color and its optimism. When I was growing up it was hanging in my grandparents’ apartment in Israel, over their couch. When we moved to America my grandparents gave it to my parents. For 12 years this painting was sealed in bubble wrap. The first time it was opened in this country was here. I knew that the moment I had my own place I would take it.

R: I actually never noticed the bartender at the back until today; his face is somehow more defined. In the future I’d like to buy more art; meaningful pieces.

B: To me this is one of the few connections to the old, European world. They had to leave. This is one of the few things I have from Yugoslavia, it is very dear to me.

Silver Coffee Maker

R: I got that from a bed & breakfast in Italy, where I worked two years ago. I WWOOFed there for three weeks, near the border with France in the Alps, in Piemonte. It was a place owned by a couple; an American wife and an Italian husband, both chefs. I learned how to make pasta, we made ravioli, a lot of cheese, a lot of tomatoes. They gave this to me as a gift when I left, because I had mentioned that I wanted one.

Red enameled pot

R: I just got that in Japan, actually. I saw it at an exhibition at MoMA PS1. It’s called the Kiosk. They traveled around the world and collected a bunch of objects, and they displayed it one by one. So each object had a specific number, and then you called a phone number and then they would give you a story for every object. So I wanted this piece, and I researched it, and I bought it.


R: This microwave is from Japan. Ben thought it was a boombox. We used to have one when I was growing up, and this one was my stepfather’s -also Japanese- and my mom kept the orange and I kept this one. There’s also a white one at the Japanese convenience store around the corner!

Tea Collection

B: There is a lot of tea.

R: There’s tea from Paris, from Mariage Frères; tea from Vienna, Japan, China. Places where we’ve traveled.

B: The green one is from China where I taught English for a summer, in Hunan province.

R: We drink a lot of tea, so that’s the collection. Now we are drinking earl grey with lavender; it’s called Earl Grey Provence.

B: I drink coffee in the mornings, and tea in the afternoon.

R: I drink the opposite: tea in the morning and coffee in the afternoon. Coffee in the morning just makes me a bit jittery. I like it after I’ve eaten a lot, so it’s nice after a good lunch. Because I also feel sleepy after lunch. I don’t drink more than two cups a day, though.

Hanukah Leftovers

R: that’s leftover from Hanukah.

B: That’s my menorah; I was given it as a gift for my Bar Mitzvah

R: Flowers that we got from our artist friend Lauren, last time she was here.

B: These yarmulkes are from Bar Mitzvahs in my home town. Americans love their weird funny yarmulkes. So Ryohei wears the dark one. They have music notes. It’s not very Israeli. 

Gentleman by Lauren Schwartz

R: We have a dear friend from Princeton. Her name is Lauren Schwartz. She’s a painter, and she studied German, and she loves Angela Merkel [laugh]. She lives in Michigan now and she visits us from time to time. This one: She’s coming next week, actually. This was a gift from her. Last summer we went to Vienna and she met us there and sent us all these photos that she took. I’ve been meaning to get frames, but we also haven’t gotten around to that [giggles].

Table of curiosities

R: The table was the first thing we found on the street. I saw it, and walked past, and there was another girl who was eyeing it too, and we were saying to each other: “It’s nice.” She told me she didn’t live that close, so I could have it. It was dirty, but I took it. Ben was surprised when he came home. First the middle was empty, and then we started putting books in the middle for lack of space. Mixed stuff. The owls are Ben’s; he likes owls.

R: The angel comes from the album of a French rap group, Odezenne. The calligraphy is an interpretation of a japanese saying “Ichi-go ichi-e”, that comes from the Japanese tea ceremony and means “one time, one meeting”. It’s supposed to symbolize the inability to repeat any contact with a thing, or nature, or a person, and to be complete in that moment. The moment transpires; and disappears. Very Japanese.

B: I thought it was very depressing the first time I saw this.

R: True, but it’s also reality.

R: Some photos that I thought looked nice, a candle from Dyptique that Ben got for his birthday, Japanese incense, which we use about five times a day, and a plant.  

R: The Fan is from Kyoto, and it shows the three major festivals that happen throughout the year there. It has the map of the rivers that go through the city. I’ve been to see the festival in the middle, the Gion Matsuri. They parade these huge portable shrines every summer and I’ve seen that a couple of times. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 4.26.17 pm.png


B: I really love owls. When I was a child, my favorite animal was the bear, but I eventually switched to owls, because I thought they were very smart and wise. I wanted to be like that myself. I’ve always loved them.

R: The big one, the colorful one, is from your grandfather.

B: That one was my grandfather’s, and it used to be in his study in Israel. My grandmother lives in a fourteen-storey apartment building in Tel Aviv, and upstairs was his study with all his books. He had all his books amazingly arranged. He had this system of how to get a book. There was a special way of finding them, A-Z and then 1-10, some cataloguing system. On the shelves he had all kinds of things, like this owl. [He’d think this book arrangement is a mess]. When my grandfather died, my grandmother told me I could take the books. I’ve been slowly bringing them to the States. Everytime I go I bring like 50 books, or as many as I can carry. This owl he got somewhere in Asia, maybe Vietnam, and my grandmother said “why don’t you take this owl?” and I did. To me it represents my grandfather, he was the most bookish and well-read person. He knew everything about everything, and my family in Israel always would talk about him, and they’d compare me to him.  My grandmother spoke so many languages: Hungarian is her mother tongue, Serbian because she grew up in Yugoslavia, French, English, German, Spanish, Hebrew. My grandfather’s mother tongue is German, but he also spoke Serbian, Romanian, French, Hungarian, Hebrew, Italian. They actually still have a translation company in Israel.

B: This owl was bought in Japan, but is from Mexico. Ryohei gave it to me. I was like “What is this? It’s so tiny!” Now I feel very warmly towards it.  

Watch and Ring

R: Everyone asks me if I’m married. Some people think so, even if it’s on the opposite hand. But actually, it only fits on that finger. It used to be a wedding ring and it is inscribed on the inside: M.A. 3 janvier 1923. I spent a summer in a chateau in France in Brittany, about two and a half hours from Paris by train. It was kind of random, it was the summer after my freshman year in college; I hadn’t really finalized my plans. I was pre-med, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I was planning to do research with a family friend who does brain cancer research here in New York. So I did that for three weeks, and then I also applied for this program where you live with a host family and teach them English. They knew enough, they just needed someone to speak with. I happened to be placed in this castle, and they were musicians and they sang: they had bought the castle about 10 to 12 years ago. It was amazing. I was supposed to be there for a month, but I was actually there for two months, and I got to see a lot of the countryside. This was the first time I learned to speak French, and after that I changed my major to study French. At the end, they gave me this ring. I only started wearing it recently. It is the kind of an everyday object that is nice to remember how you got it.

My father gave me the watch when I graduated college. He had it when I was young. I remember him wearing it, although now I’ve kind of lost that image by wearing it myself. I always associate this pink color with his wrist. My dad has lived in Japan for most of my life; my parents are separated. I see him once or twice a year. I saw him last month when I was there. I don’t really know him that well, and we are not exactly close. Probably in total  we’ve spent like two years together since he moved back to Japan. He often buys me things when we meet. But because he cares, it’s not like he feels obligated.

B: This was my grandfather’s watch as well. It is simple and understated, and I think that’s very much his personality but classy. My dad gave it to my brother first; but somehow I got it for a while. When I got it it was almost falling apart, and I have had to change the leather. My grandparents are so cultured and interesting people, so just to have their objects feels very special. Their house in Israel almost feels like a museum [laugh].


R: Most violists start off as violinists, because you play the instruments the same way. I started off playing viola; we had an orchestra at school, and they explained to us the different instruments. A lot of people wanted to play the violin, and the teacher said, “Why don’t you play viola, because we don’t have enough people playing viola.” I started when I was 8 or 9. I haven’t played recently, but I miss making music. I just had coffee with a friend who plays cello and we had played in a quartet—I miss being with other people and performing. I want to try to find a way to do that again. I bought the viola itself when I was in high school. I remember I tried a whole bunch, took them home for a week, then gave them back and ended up with this one.The case has a beautiful green color. Then there are the two bows. One the them actually has a symbol of the French monarchy, a fleur-de-lis.  It is pretty rare, usually it’s just a dot. My teacher used the same one, so she bought it for me.

His and His

B: I have fewer clothes than Ryohei. I feel it wasn't until I met Ryohei that I really thought about clothes, he has influenced my style; directed it.

R: It was nice to get these racks that are clean, bare.. they’re a bit shaky though.  

B: I was a little bit skeptical getting them at first. I was worried it will look so bad.



R: It came from our friend who used to live in our dorm. She is very quirky. She loves stuffed animals, disney movies, anything cute. I don't remember what the occasion was, but she gave everyone these rubber penguins. When we moved here, we realized that the soap dish was broken, but we never fixed it, and it kinda looked like a cliff for the penguin. We made something ugly into something cute.  

Prague and Nancy Goldin

R: Another friend of ours traveled there. On the back he copied a line of poetry by Baudelaire.

R: I don’t remember what the story is behind it. It used to be on the top of the books. (Nan Goldin postcard)


B: They help. They give me the material to help students. At the beginning, I had to review a lot. Now I finally feel I know what I am doing. It’s actually really nice to do these tests; you always have an answer, whereas with my writing I don’t have that. I also get to see interesting families and their houses. I like having to travel to all these houses.


R: We have lot of totes; like 20 or something. That was a collaboration Artsy did last year with the artist Hank Willis Thomas at The Armory Show.


R: I’ve always had lot of shoes. At school people always asked me: “Why do you have so many shoes?” I also remember in seventh grade I had these white, leather Puma shoes, and some kid stepped on them with muddy feet. I was devastated [laugh]. I don’t buy clothing that often actually [laugh], but I feel that shoes can make you look and feel different. I love taking care of them; conditioning them, polishing them. There is something about this domestic labor that I enjoy.  It also teaches you about quality and material. Leather can last for 50 years if you take care of it. I have a leather jacket from my grandfather that is about 60 years old. They never go back to  how they looked, they acquire this patina. I feel sometimes I personify them too much. I remember them as friends who were there with me in snowy Berlin or climbing Mayan ruins in Mexico.

B: When I first met him I had one pair of shoes. Now I have four. It feels like a lot. Another thing that Ryohei taught me is the ‘value of the used,’ For something to be a little bit flawed and how that can be beautiful, I never understood that before.

Calendar and Small Picture

B: The small painting is from my other grandmother, the one in America. She gave me a lot of the smaller things in the house. The utensils we eat from, the basket we put them in, the rack for the pots and pans.

R: My dad gave me that calendar. It is customary for companies to send these calendars  as New Year's gifts. The bottom part is their advertising. This is a typical Japanese calendar. You rip it off every day, and you feel the time passing.


B: I did not wear scarfs until I met Ryohei.

R: I just collect them. They just pile up there.