Tobias Wong'sfriends and family wonder if an incident while sleepwalking was the cause, and not suicide.
Published July 11, 2010|Updated July 13, 2010


New York Times

The designer Karim Rashid was stunned when he read the news online that Tobias Wong, the enfant terrible of the design world, had died May 30 at age 35, in what authorities ruled a suicide. "You're just starting your career," he recalled thinking. "Why would you do this?"

Paola Antonelli, the senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, was in Beirut when she got word. She had to sit on the bed and compose herself, unable to believe it was true.

Rama Chorpash, a design professor in Philadelphia, heard it from a student and it made no sense to him, either. Why would Wong, the renowned prankster and provocateur, end his own life? "My first thought was that this was another one of Tobi's stunts," he said.

Tobias Wong dead? Why? And more to the point, why now? This was no tortured artist, locked in a downward spiral, friends and family said. Complex, mercurial, mischievous - he was all those things. But he was not miserable.

By most accounts, he was actually riding high. Wong was about to open a new design agency and was coming off a successful showing at the recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair, a major industry show in New York. At home in the East Village, he and his partner of six years, Tim Dubitsky, a 32-year-old advertising design manager, were talking about having a child by a surrogate. In short, those who knew him well simply couldn't believe he wanted to take his own life.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Wong left open questions in death. He continually did so in life. In fact, he built his career on it.

In a field in which so many people want to be the next Philippe Starck, Donald Tobias Wong stood out as a designer who wanted to be the next Duchamp. Deeply influenced by subversive art movements like Dada and Fluxus, he graduated from the sculpture program at the Cooper Union and went on to produce an acclaimed and influential body of work that questioned concepts like luxury and consumerism in a business that was about promoting them.

He dipped Tiffany pearl earrings in black rubber and sold them in blue Tiffany boxes. He fashioned a duvet and a rose brooch out of black Kevlar.

Wong, who claimed he couldn't draw, coined the term "paraconceptual" to describe his work. And what other word would you use to describe, say, shimmering strands of Swarovski crystal suspended in a tank of piranhas, a piece he did in collaboration with Amelia Bauer for Art Basel Miami Beach in 2005?

"I don't regard Tobias as a designer," Rashid said. "I regard him as an artist. His objects were statements. They were profound in the way they made the design community rethink what they were doing, or why they were doing it."

Rashid was one of about 100 people, many drawn from New York's design community, who turned out for a memorial for Wong recently. True to Wong's personality, the memorial was informal, lively and slightly bizarre. (The Russian writer and artist Slava Mogutin, known for his work involving pornography, made a late appearance.)

There were no tearful eulogies. Rather, it resembled a stylish store opening, with people in blocky horn-rim eyeglasses and loafers without socks sipping prosecco and mingling amid displays of Wong's work.

What admirers could not know, however, was that in private, Wong was given to fits of eccentric behavior that went above and beyond his boundary-pushing professional exploits.

There was the day about a year ago, for example, when Wong showed up for a breakfast meeting at Balthazar with a glassy look in his eyes and started cadging sausages off a stranger's plate at the next table, recalled Josee Lepage, a friend and colleague who was present. Or there was the time that Jiminy, a pet cricket he tended with Dubitsky in their apartment, died. Dubitsky awoke in the middle of the night to find Wong meticulously chopping vegetables for the motionless insect, which he had fished out of the garbage. "He was almost tearing up," Dubitsky recalled. "He was saying: 'Jiminy is not dead! I heard him chirping!' "

The reason for this behavior went beyond the quirks of the creative temperament, friends and family members said: Wong was, clinically speaking, asleep. For years, he had suffered from a variety of sleep disorders known as parasomnias: In layman's terms, he was a serious, chronic sleepwalker.

During episodes, Wong would rise from bed in a zombielike trance and perform elaborate tasks (bill clients, make funny outfits for his cats). At times, his sleep problems took the form of a related disorder that researchers call sleep terrors - essentially, a half-waking nightmare state that the subject cannot snap out of.

Given this history, many people who were close to him believe that his death was not an act of will, but, like other sleepwalking episodes, a bizarre out-of-character act that ended tragically.

It is possible that Wong, who left no note, battled inner demons that he never revealed. But friends who saw him during his final weeks said Wong showed no signs of significant agitation or distress.

"With Tobi, there was sometimes this undercurrent of intensity running beneath the high jinks and laughter," said Aric Chen, a friend and collaborator.

Wong was not acting like a man who saw no future. His stepfather, Stephen Chan, said he found a receipt in Wong's wallet for an expensive flat-screen television that he had ordered only days before his death.

Wong, moreover, had no history of mental illness, no health problems and no substance abuse issues, friends and family members said. The only problem his partner recalled discussing with him in his final week was how to find transportation for a visit to a friend's country house.

Wong, a tireless worker and insomniac, was often exhausted. Born in Vancouver, B.C. (his family was from Hong Kong), he approached the insular New York art and design worlds with the hunger of an outsider.

"He often would tell his mom that he had to work three times as hard as people here to get recognized," Chan said.

He pulled all-nighters, and the more stress he experienced, the worse his sleepwalking episodes grew, Dubitsky said. One or more episodes a week was common.

There were troubling occasions when he showed a capacity for violence. Barbara Moore, an art historian and friend, said that Wong told her he had pulled a treasured Joseph Beuys artwork off the wall while sleeping and threw it across the room.

Sleep researchers say that such behavior, while extreme, is not uncommon. Dr. Mark W. Mahowald, the director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, a prominent sleep research facility at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, explained that "sleepwalking and sleep terrors are the same basic phenomenon."

In either case, he said, the subject is "half-asleep and half-awake."

"They are awake enough to perform very complex behaviors, but not awake enough to be aware of or responsible for what they're doing," he said. Mahowald did not rule out the possibility that a sleepwalker could harm himself unintentionally. Some sleepwalkers will go jogging on the freeway and be killed in traffic, or stroll off the deck of a cruise ship, unaware of their surroundings, he said. He and colleagues even coined the term parasomnia pseudo-suicide, in part because the fatalities are frequently misinterpreted.

No one, however, can know what was going through Wong's mind the night he died. People looking for signs of a deteriorating mood might linger on the fact that for a recent commissioned piece, Wong produced a rope with wooden beads that spelled out a Morse code message: "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," the title of a song by LCD Soundsystem. Or that he been listening to a Joni Mitchell paean to lost innocence, Both Sides Now, whose lyrics include "so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way," on a virtual loop at home. Dubitsky dismissed its significance, saying that Wong always played songs on repeat and rarely paid attention to lyrics.

That final day had been particularly serene, Dubitsky said.

After dinner, they read, sent e-mail messages, then dozed off together on the couch. When he woke up a few hours later, Dubitsky recalled, Wong had slipped into a sleepwalking state. Dubitsky tried to chat with him, then went to bed.

The next morning, he found his partner dead. Themedical examiner ruled it a suicide by hanging.

Dubitsky remains convinced that it was sleepwalking. Before his death, Wong himself seemed to realize that such a tragic accident was possible.

Dubitsky produced a small framed copy of the children's prayer, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, handwritten and signed (with hearts) "Tobi," that hung in the home's entryway. Following the line, "If I should die before I wake," however, Wong had added a few more - a darkly sardonic apology to his partner in case he hurt anyone while asleep.

"It was his way of saying, 'If I ever do anything out ofcontrol ...' " Dubitsky said. "This was kind of a joke," he added ruefully.

And perhaps not.