This January, we had the opportunity at Maison&Objet Paris to speak with Oki Sato of nendo about his work and design philosophy.
Design Anthology: So you were born in Canada? And you moved back to Japan at what age?
Oki Sato: Ten years old.
And what prompted that move?
My father used to work for Pioneer, the electronics company. He worked in Canada for ten years then came back.
And are you enjoying being in Japan, does it feel like home?
Yes, I guess so.
What does it mean to you to be an Asian designer?
That is a very difficult question. I feel that Asian countries are very different actually — Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan… I guess every designer is different in a way, but what does it mean, how do I feel? I’ve never thought of myself as an Asian designer actually, because I studied architecture in Japan, but in 2002 I went to Milan for the furniture fair and then started as a designer. So in a way I didn’t train myself as a designer — I guess I started my career in Milan, so I’m not sure if I’m really Asian or not, it’s sort of hard for me to call myself Asian.
I had to ask, as there’s currently a little more focus on what’s going on in that part of the world, and I wonder if it’s a certain mentality or if it doesn’t mean anything. It’s something different for everyone.
Well, I spend half of my time here in Europe. I am based in Tokyo, but I also have an office in Milan. Basically, my suitcase is like my house and I spend most of my time in hotels and aeroplanes. But I feel that Japanese/Asian/Eastern design is about respecting things that you really don’t see, like the process or the culture or the history. I guess that’s one of the reasons why Asian design gets more minimal in a way. It’s not about adding things but it’s about taking things away. It’s like Japanese food, I guess — it’s very minimalist. It’s not about adding more sauces and things like that.
That’s a good way of putting it. So do you feel like there’s a sense of balance then with your practice being placed between Tokyo and Milan? Is that a positive or is there an advantage to being placed on two continents?
I don’t like flying, so I’d rather stay in one place. But I have to meet my clients and I have to check my prototypes so I have to go back and forth, and I have clients in Japan and in Europe so I have to go back and forth.
Do you find that the clients in Japan — or Asia perhaps — are quite different to the clients in Europe? Are they as aware or are there any issues that you find in one part of the world that you don’t in another?
Well, design is new in Asian countries, and a lot of clients don’t know how to communicate and how to collaborate with designers, so it’s much easier to work with European companies because they’re used to working with designers and they know what they want and yes, as Asian designers, in a way we need to communicate more thoroughly and tell them how design works as business and how it helps them in the end and it takes more time, I guess, to work with the Asian market.
I was reading the bio on your website the other day and it talks about small moments. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Is there something particular that you had in mind when you were talking about those sorts of small moments, or is it a series of things?
It’s more like storytelling — it’s finding small stories in everyday life, so I’m really not interested in forms and colour. That all comes out later. What’s more important is the story that’s hidden behind the objects. So I look into really everyday life. The small moments, small differences, and I guess, what is most important is people’s emotions. That’s how I design.
So does that mean you like designing objects that people touch or experience daily? As opposed to something like a luxury car?
Well, it doesn’t have to be objects — it could be graphic design, it can be space design. We work on architecture.
Your practice is very multi-disciplinary?
Is there any particular type of project that you’d prefer more than another, or is the variety what you enjoy the most?
Well, I get to design a box of chocolates or design a building, it’s basically the same thing.
It seems to be a recurring theme with a lot of creative people that I speak to that it actually keeps them inspired to be able to do such a variety of different objects.
At the moment I’m working on more than three hundred projects at the same time. But they’re all very different and it really gets me excited — I never get bored.
Can you tell me how the ‘chocolatexture’ stand that we’re sitting on right now, today, how did this come about? Was this your idea and your approach to Maison, or did someone come to you?
Maison gave us the space, and we came up with the idea about not just showing our design but being able to eat our design, so we thought about chocolates, and they’re all in the same flavour but in different shapes and textures.
They’re really quite incredible.
Yes, so it feels like you’re eating something different but it’s all the same. So it’s like the form is affecting the taste. Then we thought about a seating area so that people can sit down and actually eat the chocolates, so I asked my old friend Julia at Moroso for the pieces that we’ve designed in the last two or three years, and we had them finished in this chocolate colour.
Yes, the colours are almost exactly the same — that’s quite a task!
And then we thought about the spaces surrounding the furniture and we came up with the idea about having these rods, aluminium rods, which were all hand painted individually so they’re different. There’s two thousand pieces of these, so it feels like you’re sitting in a part of an urban jungle. So in the end we wanted to show the total experience of design using all five senses.
You’ve also collaborated with Hong Kong company Lasvit for lighting. How long ago was that collaboration?
That was about two or three years ago, I think.
Did they approach you for that?
Yes, that’s right.
Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the designs that you did?
I think I visited their workshop almost every month. So I visited Prague almost every month and I’d sit there in the corner watching the guys blowing these huge glass pieces. And then I started thinking, ‘What if they do something like this?’ and I’d ask them questions and let them try things, so it was like an ongoing process.
I noticed that everyone was blowing into the glass, and I asked them if they could suck the air out of the glass and they were laughing in the beginning but when they tried we noticed that it creates interesting wrinkles on the surface of the glass. I don’t know how many pieces we made together — maybe four or five different concepts.
So it didn’t start with a drawing at all? That’s really interesting. Now, is there anything that you’re working on currently that you’re able to talk about?
Well MO is not only here in Paris, there’s three now. There’s another one in Singapore.
Right, so you’ll be at Singapore in March?
Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about something else for the exhibition. Also there’s Miami in May, so I think I have to think of something there. Also there’s the furniture fair in Milan in April, of course. I’ll be working with, I guess, close to twenty different clients and we’ll do a solo exhibition.
So you’ll have your own space?
Yes. Then there’s the expo as well in Milan in May. We’ll be working with the Japanese pavilion, collaborating with traditional Japanese craftsmen in fifteen or sixteen new objects. We’ve got a lot of things ready for the first half of the year.
Any bigger projects like architecture?
We’re working on private houses now, two or three of them at the moment. And then we’re working on a railway station close to Kyoto in Japan which has a café and an outdoor theatre and an information centre and a kiosk all together. We’re working on a shopping centre in Bangkok as well, six floors and the facade as well, quite a lot of work. I think they’ll open next year in spring.