Japanese designer Oki Sato went from architecture graduate at a top Tokyo university, to founding his design studio Nendo and being included in “the Top 100 Small Japanese Companies” in just five years. Another five years later, his infectious designs and personality had gained international traction and had him on multiple “Designer of the Year” lists. Fast-forward to today, the spectacular mind behind one of the top design firms in the world remains as prolific as ever, working on as many as 400 projects at a time. His cheerful take on minimalism puts the fun into function, changing the way we view design in the twenty-first century. So, how does he do it?
Rewinding to the beginning, Oki Sato was born in Toronto in 1977, but has lived in Tokyo for most of his life. In 2002, he obtained his Master’s degree from Waseda University, a prestigious Tokyo educational institution. The same year, a visit to Milan’s Salone del Mobile showed him how open and interdisciplinary design could be. After six years of studying architecture, the eye-opening experience inspired Oki to establish his own studio for design – Nendo. Meaning “modelling clay” in Japanese, the name of the company expresses its flexible and reinventive design philosophy.
First Tokyo, Then the World?
Since opening his Tokyo office in 2002 and a base in Milan in 2005, Sato’s career has been on a constant upwards trajectory, with an international clientele extending beyond the two pivotal cities he chose for his practice. Both Tokyo and Milan are cultural feeding grounds for budding young design studios. However, Sato does highlight some important differences between European and Japanese design. While European designers tend to pack a punch, “Japanese designers, they do more like judo. The opponent pushes them and they use that energy to throw them away. They know how to absorb that energy and change it into design.” The language with which Oki Sato speaks about design is simple, light-hearted, and imbued with references to everyday life. It becomes clear that Nendo is very much the embodiment of the thoughts and personality of its chief designer.
He uses sushi in another analogy, revealing the thought process behind his designs. “Fresh, you just cut the raw fish and then you serve”, he explains. Emphatically against dwelling too much on one design, Sato feels most comfortable when working on a multitude of projects for several clients at once. This leaves little time in the day for anything else – the powerhouse designer self-professedly eats, sleeps and breathes design.
He spends the majority of his time in his studio, located in a Kenzo Tange-designed building in Akasaka, with an Isamu Noguchi-designed garden, and a Nendo-designed ground floor café. Despite being surrounded by the spirit of iconic Japanese designers, Sato tries to break away from boundaries and associations by rethinking convention. He challenges the typical Western outlook on rigid Japanese minimalism by injecting a dose of humor and surprise into his designs. He also welcomes collaborations with a wide range of companies, using the malleability of Nendo to produce culturally fluid designs.
The Element of Surprise
“Emotion is important in design; it can become cold if it’s too minimal. There should be humor and an element of surprise. Design has to be friendly; it’s another thing Issey Miyake taught me. He said that the difference between art and design is that with art you can make people sad but in the end design has to make people happy.” Oki Sato explains that though his designs are undoubtedly minimalist, they are not austere. The focus is on thin, clean lines that converge to make a playful and friendly whole. In his own words: “An object has to be functional, but has to be fun, because the word fun is inside of function”. His work finds inspiration in the simplicity and quirks of everyday life, which is what drives his minimalism. It is more an apt means of expression than an end. Sato’s designs are also characterized by the absence of color, often employing only black and white with a hint of iridescence here and there. “I guess I’m interested more in light and shadows than color,” he says.
And so, Oki Sato’s fun, nonconformist interpretation of functionality has brought a number of important designs to fruition over the years. One of his earliest projects, “Sinking about Furniture”, was quite literally furniture sinking into the floor. Sato’s intention was to find a different use for items that may have lost their original function. It was also a play on the Japanese pronunciation of “thinking”. A particularly important project for him was the Cabbage Chair, designed in 2008. Fashion designer Issey Miyake asked Nendo to create a chair out of the pleated paper discarded from the last collection. Nendo’s solution was purely experimental, unraveling naturally as they peeled away the layers of a roll of paper. At one point, Miyake declared it finished. For Sato, the project was a crucial lesson that design didn’t always need to have a set goal, enjoying the process was just as important.
Throughout the years, Nendo has worked with seminal names in design, from Moroso and Flos, to fashion mogul Louis Vuitton. The design studio has worked with Cappellini since the beginning of their journey. Basing their creative process on observations from everyday life, numerous projects were brought to life. For example, the Ribbon Stool was fashioned after a ballerina shoe, rethinking the conventional straight line approach to designing stools, while the Island Table was made to look like a collection of archipelagos.
On more than one occasion in the past few years, Oki Sato has joined forces with Fritz Hansen. Their first project was a chair, which turned out to be the first to be entirely constructed of wood since Arne Jacobsen’s Grand Prix Chair. Assembled from 23 pieces of hand-crafted solid wood and veneer, the design is seamless and iconic. In 2019, Nendo designed another chair for the brand, this time focusing on sustainability by using recycled plastic with the intention of being recycled again. Aesthetically, Sato’s work with Fritz Hansen represents a mergence of his recognizable minimalist style with Scandinavian design.
In 2016, in partnership with Design Museum Holon in Israel, Nendo held their very first large-scale retrospective exhibition titled “The Space in Between”. Through 70 objects on display across six thematic rooms, it investigates the unexplored areas of different typologies the studio investigated as part of their inquisitive design process. Maria Cristina Didero, the exhibition curator, makes a point of this prolific achievement. “It’s strange to say ‘a retrospective’ for a guy who’s not even 40. When he’s 70 we’ll need a whole plaza to display everything he’s done.”
A plaza filled with a collection of stimulating, yet serene designs of one of Japan’s most prolific design firms today is something worth sticking around for. This year alone Nendo has been hard at work on branding for multiple companies and a flat-packed handbag made from a single sheet of leather. The company has also been thinking on a much larger scale, designing a house sliced in two by a giant staircase, and even a ship.
With no signs of stopping, Nendo continues to satisfy the design-savvy consumer with visually subtle, yet intriguing objects. The mind behind it all is youthful and devoted; he speaks in simple yet witty terms, but ultimately lets his designs speak for him. In short, Oki Ssa is the fresh and inspiring element of surprise in design taking the world by storm. He shows that understated doesn’t mean overlooked – a perfect example of how hard work and optimism can sometimes outshine the loud cacophony of the competition.