Nendo's founder is extraordinarily prolific and versatile, creating clean-lined work subverted by witty, playful touches. We met him before the opening of his latest show
Born in Toronto and raised in Tokyo, Japanese designer Oki Sato is extraordinarily prolific and versatile, with clients ranging from Cappellini to Coca-Cola. Nendo – his studio based in Tokyo and Milan – creates clean-lined work that appears to conform to the Japanese minimalist stereotype but subverts it with witty, playful touches.
The designer was typically promininent at this year’s Milan Furniture Fair in April, taking over the courtyard of Museo della Permanente with 50 ‘Manga’ chairs. He also launched a range of children’s toys with Italian furniture brand Kartell and marble tables for Marsotto Edizioni. In short, it is rare for Sato to pause and draw breath, which makes his first major retrospective, the Space In Between, held at Design Museum Holon near Tel Aviv, all the more interesting. Icon spoke to Sato just before the opening of the show.
Oki Sato sits on one of his Cabbage chairs for Issey Miyake (2008)
ICON Can you tell us about the arrangement of objects in your new show?
OKI SATO It reflects how I see design, which is not about objects themselves but the spaces between them. I’m inspired by overlooked things, like the gaps between floorboards. When you see normal things in a different way they seem non-ordinary. There are 74 collections in the show and instead of displaying them on pedestals, they’re in open-topped boxes, lit inside. I designed the show to feel like a town, so the aisles between the boxes feel like streets. It has the feeling, too, of visiting a zoo, where people’s eyes are drawn to a tank with fish or reptiles in it because it’s lit. The idea is for people to feel they’re connecting with the objects rather than looking at artworks.
ICON You’ve created a huge number of designs. Is it possible to name one or two that you consider particularly significant?
OS Yes, my Cabbage chair of 2008, designed for Issey Miyake. He phoned me one day and told me that lots of paper used when creating his pleated fabrics goes to waste – when they’re pleated, the fabrics are sandwiched between very soft paper. So he asked me if I could make a chair with it. The project was very exciting.
I would meet him every week and show him prototypes. One day, I showed him one resembling a chair, made of paper strengthened by resin. I said, ‘It’s not a chair yet,’ but he said, ‘No, no, it is a chair.’ Having studied to be an architect, I was used to developing ideas slowly but Miyake taught me that a design can be completed at an apparently raw stage. There’s also my Thin Black Lines collection from 2010 – steel furniture forming minimal black lines that resemble sketches drawn in the air, which look both 2D and 3D.
Tangle Table for Cappellini (2016)
ICON Unlike many designers, you haven’t named your studio after yourself. Why is it called Nendo? Is it because you feel that designers should be more anonymous or does the name Nendo reflect a collaborative approach?
OS I chose Nendo because in Japanese it means a modelling clay like Play-Doh – something you play with, that’s flexible. I think I’d be embarrassed about putting my name to my pieces. I feel more comfortable being behind this panel that says ‘Nendo’. The funny thing is that some people now come up to me and call me ‘Mr Nendo’!
ICON You’re very sought-after as a designer, working on about 60 to 70 projects at a time. Why do you think
OS I think it’s the story-telling element in my work. For me, a good design is something you can successfully explain to your mother over the phone. I want to create pieces that feel familiar to people, because I think people are afraid of things they’ve never experienced before. I want to tap into feelings and experiences they’ve had before, then give them a slight twist.
Fadeout chair for the Museum of Art and Design, New York (2009–10)
ICON The warm, human element to your work suggests it’s rather romantic. Would you agree?
OS No. Unfortunately, I’m not a romantic person. My own house is very plain – like a gallery or a prison. It’s got one bed, some books, my dog. That’s all I need. I want my private life to be super-boring, so, when I’m not working, I don’t have to make any decisions. I always wear white shirts and black trousers and the same style of socks and underwear.
Routine makes me feel comfortable: every day I take my dog for a walk, go to the same noodle bar and sit on the same chair. At weekends I do things a bit more slowly – shower for ten rather than five minutes. I only ever listen to two types of music, which is either up or down. After work, I listen to down music as it’s calming.
ICON Yet humour seems important to you. Take your minimalist furniture wrapped in colourful wool inspired by Winnie-the-Pooh characters for Walt Disney or your Cupnoodle Forms – your version of the humble, disposable Cup Noodle container comically distorted and made of ceramic.
OS Yes. I feel that Japanese architecture and design are about minimalism, poetry. They reduce things down, which creates a certain magic but, when it’s done too much, an object loses its warmth, it repels people. That’s not how I want my designs to be. I like them to have humour and to surprise – rather like when you add spices to food. Suddenly you have friendliness, warmth and this creates a link with the user.
Bottleware for Coca-Cola (2012)
ICON You’re incredibly prolific and fast. Are you involved with every design from conception to completion? How can you undertake so much work?
OS Well, I have a team of 25 designers and five other staff in Tokyo and a designer in Milan. And I’m a workaholic. I believe the more you design, the more you want to. I do all the presentations of new products to my clients. I check all prototypes and each design’s construction. The Japanese word for people who are totally addicted to certain things, like me, is otaku, meaning geek.
It’s usually used for people obsessed with anime animation and manga comics. And yes, I’m fast. I compare my designing to making sushi or sashimi – if you hold a piece of sushi in your hands for too long, the rice gets warm and that destroys the taste. I like to come up with an idea, then serve it fast. The fresher it is the better. Of course, it means we make mistakes, but we can quickly rectify them because we’re fast.
ICON You’ve won lots of awards and been feted by the media – for example Newsweek included you in its article, ‘The 100 Most Respected Japanese’ back in 2006. How do you feel about this success?
OS For me, winning an award feels like winning a lottery ticket. It makes me happy but having dozens of awards doesn’t change anything for me. Awards aren’t just down to me, I can’t do anything by myself – I owe my success to my team, who work very hard, and my clients.
Above: Sato designed the Spaces In Between exhibition to ‘feel like a town’, with street-like aisles
The exhibition, at the Design Museum Holon in Israel, includes 74 collections