A Mysterious BalanceAn Interview with Oki Sato of Nendo
Just like sushi, an idea has to be fresh and prepared as quickly as possible. The body temperature of the person handling the sushi can spoil it; so too, the personal emotions and consciousness of the designer can shift over the course of a project and ruin the design.
Oki Sato, the founder and chief designer of Nendo, first arrived in Tokyo at the age of 10. “Compared to my relaxed upbringing in Toronto, I found Tokyo a very noisy, narrow, and exciting city,” he says. “As a ‘foreigner’, all the things that other children considered ordinary were fascinating to me. Now, even after living in Tokyo for more than 30 years, I still benefit from that outsider’s perspective. It has been very useful for my design projects; I find that rather than being inspired by a special experience or situation, I discover interesting ideas in everyday life.”
Which is just as well, as Oki Sato requires an unceasing torrent of ideas. In the space of one year, Nendo designed over 100 different products for a total of 19 brands. He claims he enjoys juggling up to 400 projects at once, and he is as versatile as he is prolific, working on anything from bowls made from the bases of recycled Coca-Cola bottles, to wooden ‘fadeout’ chairs with transparent acrylic legs that seem to float above the ground, to an exhibition in dialogue with the work of M. C. Escher, interiors for Camper stores across the globe, and a public architectural park in Kyoto inspired by kofun burial mounds. But what unifies this diverse oeuvre is a rational simplicity and playfulness, apparent in each design, and encapsulated in the name of the studio: nendo in Japanese means ‘modelling clay’, like Play-Doh.
Sato launched Nendo in 2002 after graduating from Tokyo’s Waseda University with an MA in architecture; a visit to Milan’s Salone de Mobile the same year inspired him to begin work as a designer. Countless creations later, and now with around 50 designers working for the studio, Sato’s approach remains simple and direct. “First I make a sketch,” he says. “They usually look like very bad cartoons, but I always make the excuse that the sketch is intentionally abstract to allow the idea to develop faster,” he laughs. “From this sketch, the designer in charge of the project will evolve the concept. We make a lot of drawings and renderings, but I find the most value in physical mock-ups, which is why we have eight 3D printers in the studio. Over many iterations, we will interrogate every detail of the design. All of this takes place within two to three weeks. Just like sushi, an idea has to be fresh and prepared as quickly as possible. The body temperature of the person handling the sushi can spoil it; so too, the personal emotions and consciousness of the designer can shift over the course of a project and ruin the design.”
This fast-paced approach can be attributed to a formative project of Sato’s: the Cabbage Chair, commissioned by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake in 2008. The brief was to create a chair from the recycled sheets of tissue paper used between the folds of Miyake’s packaged clothing. Sato took a large cylindrical ream of this paper and peeled away the layers, which flopped outwards like petals, until it resembled something close to a seat. He shared the early prototype with Miyake, explaining it was not quite complete, but Miyake disagreed, and declared the piece finished. As a student of architecture accustomed to designing slowly and methodically, this fast, fluid process was a liberation for Sato.
The everyday life from which Sato garners his ideas is one of simple routine. He lives a 30-second walk away from the Nendo office, which is housed in a building designed by Kenzō Tange, overlooking the Akasaka Imperial Palace. His wardrobe is filled exclusively with white shirts and black trousers. He walks to work each day with his dog, gets the same coffee from Connel Coffee – the cafe he designed below his studio – and for lunch, eats the same bowl of soba in the same seat of the same restaurant. “This routine is very important to me,” he says. “I spend a third of my life abroad and rarely stay in the same city for more than three days. Such rapid changes to my environment make it difficult for me to grasp my own physical and mental condition. When I’m in Tokyo, I am able to evaluate my condition and reset myself.”
The city, for Sato, is defined by its contradictions. “Tokyo is old and new, local and global, quiet and noisy,” he says. “These elements do not mix like a melting pot, nor do they collide energetically, like in Shanghai for example. Instead, they are organised in a mysterious balance that feels chaotic as well as calming. This is something I also recognise in myself: a chaos, but the consistency of that chaos creating a kind of balance. I love that feeling, but sometimes I am not good at attaining it,” he laughs.
Does living in such a chaotic city affect the way he designs? “It is a noisy city, but it is a visual noise. There is an excess of information and stimuli, and there are a lot of visual impurities,” says Sato. “If you tried to focus on every element, you would easily lose track of yourself. On the other hand, if you can attenuate all this noise to the background, you can reach a very high level of concentration and inspiration. I think it produces a different kind of focus than a purely quiet environment.”
In the last few years, Nendo has begun to take on larger architectural projects. 2017 saw the studio design the CoFoFun plaza in Kyoto, where large, stepped domes and amphitheatres in white concrete create unusual, intuitive public spaces for people to relax in, inspired by the forms of Kansai’s kofun tumuli. A strong slant on play features throughout: one amphitheatre has a bouncy centre, while others lend themselves naturally to outdoor performances. “When I first started out as a designer, I often applied architectural thinking to my designs,” says Sato. “Now, I believe if I apply the ideas and approach I have learned over the past 20 years as a designer to architecture, there is a possibility I can create new expressions and values. We haven’t done a whole lot of this kind of work yet, and I don’t know what the end will be, but I am looking forward to working on this new challenge with all the team at Nendo.”