Style & Design

Oki Sato of Nendo: on the objects of design

by Haniya Rae

Special To The Japan Times

This year alone, Oki Sato, founder and director of Nendo, has not one, but two major retrospective exhibitions of the design unit’s work — one at the Design Museum Holon in Israel, the other at the Taiwan Design Museum. His acclaimed “50 Manga Chairs” installation for Friedman Benda, which first debuted at the Milan Salone del Mobile 2016, is also concurrently showing in New York. The prolific architect and product designer is only 39, but he says he has hundreds more design projects lined up, and there’s no end in sight for him.

On the opening day of “50 Manga Chairs” at the Friedman Benda gallery, Sato spoke to The Japan Times about his current designs, his work ethic and what’s next for Nendo.

What was your design process for the Friedman Benda show, “50 Manga Chairs”?

We first came up with the basic shape. It has no character at all. We started designing 80 types of chairs (which were edited down to 50). I was really inspired by movement and motions. I think it’s interesting that cartoonists can communicate with people through just black ink and white paper. So I wanted to figure out a way to translate that into objects and space.

Do you have a favorite manga you read regularly or inspires you?

I love “Doraemon.” He’s one of my heroes in terms of design, actually. He always comes up with new, crazy product designs. They (Doraeomon’s ideas) kind of solve the problem at hand, but it doesn’t solve the larger issues. That itself creates a story. The way his objects generate stories, that’s what’s really inspiring to me.

How do the chairs relate to your overall body of work?

It’s hard to say. We use very simple lines and clean shapes, but it needs to have a twist of something that creates a link with people.

It has a bit of humor — some of these chairs look like they’re about to walk. In the end, it’s always about how to connect with people.

So you don’t follow a specific design process?

I start by coming up with a bunch of ideas. They have to be very simple. And then I do a bunch of stupid sketches. You can laugh, but that’s what it is!

The smaller the idea is, the more it expands into a bigger result in the end. I’m not really interested in big ideas turning into big differences. I’m interested in starting small and letting the process lead me to something big.

How do you know when an idea is ready?

That’s a very difficult question.

I worked on a collection with Issey Miyake and developed the Cabbage Chair. It was as the first collection we did for Friedman Benda in 2009. I was trained as an architect, which meant I had a goal to fulfill and I needed to finish every project. Mr. Miyake (however) told me that I really didn’t have to finish the project. When you feel that it’s finished, it’s finished.

That was really interesting and inspiring — you are the one who creates the goal. That’s what makes design so free and interesting. Every project has a different goal. Sometimes, I feel I should stop and hand things (ideas) off to the next project. But that’s fine with me, since I’m working on something like 400 projects, it’s easy to keep moving.

How do you keep track of 400 projects?!

(Laughing) No idea, I just keep on working. I’m addicted to design.

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with “eureka” moments?

Sometimes I wake up and think I had a great idea. But usually I come up with better ones when I’m (fully) awake.

Are there designers or artists you find particularly inspiring and whose work you never tire of looking at?

I’m inspired by everything. There’s so much information. The most important stories for me though come from everyday life. It’s about respecting everyday life, boring life. There’s something interesting in the routine. Then there are small moments that make life interesting.

How different it is to work on a project for fun and to create something for a brand?

Every project has a client. We do a lot of experimentation in our studio. In the end, it’s all the same for me.

There isn’t a big difference between (working for) galleries or on some projects — there’s (still) a lot of freedom to do what we want. With others, such as interior design or electronics, there isn’t so much.

Do you set limitations on yourself when you start a project?

I try not to. The fewer limitations, the more freedom. The more freedom, you end up somewhere different than expected, which is one of the most exciting things about this profession.

What’s next? Did you discover anything new while working on the chairs that you’d like to explore in the future?

We try not to make objects for objects —Nendo designs have to expand into future projects and ideas. We’re always concerned about how to link the object within space, within an interior.

For example, in the Friedman Benda show, the chairs need to be in an environment, either staged or found, that the viewer is a part of. We also try not to show only finished projects or objects, because in the end it’s about sharing these exciting, raw ideas with others.

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