An exclusive excerpt from Gestalten’s new Nendo monograph!

Nendo: 10/10

By Anna Carnick

Over the past decade, Japanese design studio Nendo has established itself as one of the world’s most prolific creative firms. Led by designer Oki Sato, Nendo applies its signature, playfully elegant approach to projects ranging from architecture and interiors to product and graphic design. Now, a new Gestalten monograph, narrated by our very own Anna Carnick, explores the breadth and wealth of the firm’s work. We’ve scored an exclusive excerpt—a peek behind the curtains at Oki Sato—just for our readers. Enjoy!

Storytelling: The Universe of Oki Sato

Oki Sato is a storyteller. Transforming everyday objects and spaces into unexpected, poetic moments—what he calls “aha” or “!” moments—he uses design to elevate and inspire.

“It’s not the object itself that’s important,” the Japanese designer says. “I really don’t care about colors or materials or the form itself, but it has to have a really nice story behind it. The story is what moves people.”

Sato, Cofounder and Chief Designer of Nendo since 2002, sees opportunities for storytelling all around him. Through careful observation, he captures small, surprising moments in the day-to-day world, and recreates and shares them with others through his work. As a result, in Nendo’s world, furniture blooms from flowerpots, and simple metal rods or stone tabletops join forces to form floating, interior gardens. A chair changes volume before our eyes, becoming, morphing, and collapsing in form depending on our relevant position. A fine-dining dessert course is an opportunity to play with one’s food. A gym’s rock-climbing wall is transformed into a scene from a modern interior design magazine, replacing the typical, rugged climbers’ grips and holds with romantic picture frames, mirrors, and birdcages. And a series of furniture—composed of simple, square planes—dances and topples before us, without ever really moving at all.

Every one of his designs begins with a small, even humble idea, which Sato cultivates and grows into a larger concept to which observers can genuinely connect. “Simplified things are easier to communicate to people,” Sato says. “Design,” he notes, “is always about communicating, and considering how a composition may affect people’s emotions. This is what makes it different from art.”

And so he strives, through his pieces’ form and structure, to evoke genuine and empathetic responses from observers. At times, his work takes advantage of our inherently curious natures, demanding further interaction and even investigation; on other occasions, through charmingly unexpected exteriors, shapes, or juxtapositions, it cries out to be touched; and sometimes it just guilelessly offers a moment of laughter and surprise.

At each turn, Nendo’s work combines the minimalism, subtlety, and functional grace characteristic of traditional Japanese design with a lightheartedness and—at times—almost childlike humor that reflects the country’s current pop culture, as well as more Western influences. “When minimalism goes too far,” Sato explains, “it gets cold. I would like my designs to be friendly. Humor is like a pinch of spice.”

The results, as one can see throughout the pages of this book, are playfully elegant—making the work simultaneously multi-layered and accessible. . .

At each turn, Nendo’s work combines the minimalism, subtlety, and functional grace characteristic of traditional Japanese design...

Almost shockingly prolific, at any given time, Nendo’s team of approximately 35 designers (most in their late twenties) is working on 220-plus projects, each a cooperative effort between Sato and one other designer. The studio’s work spans and, sometimes, even overlaps the arenas of interiors, architecture, and installation, as well as furniture, products, and graphic design.

In Japanese, the word Nendo means “clay,” and the studio has embraced its namesake with Play-Doh-like flexibility and freedom in not just the types of projects it takes on, but also in their execution, which ranges from handmade pieces celebrating artisan crafts to 3D printed objects and environments.

Beyond the obvious elbow grease involved, the real magic in Sato’s “!” moments is the hard-won fruit of a lifestyle devoted to careful, constant observation. He is inspired by quiet, everyday moments, and the subtle yet impactful differences that can occur from one day to the next. So despite circling the globe approximately two weeks out of every month (Sato insists on seeing every Nendo-related prototype and construction site himself, and prefers to meet with clients face to face whenever possible), he is committed to routine.

When he is home in Tokyo, for example, he walks to work the same way each morning, eats the same lunch at the same restaurant, and visits a Starbucks three times a day. Half-jokingly referring to himself as “boring,” Sato asserts that this routine is at the heart of Nendo’s design paradigm. Through it, he continually monitors his environment, looking for patterns and anomalies.

When he comes across a simple, yet evocative instance (say, the uneasiness one feels when a glass of water rests at the edge of a table versus the relative comfort one experiences when that same glass sits safely at the table’s center—an oft-cited Sato example, and the potential moment of inception for a series such as Dancing Squares), he dissects it, so that he may conjure it anew for the rest of us to enjoy in more permanent, solid forms.

Accordingly, Nendo may freeze the moment in time when a glass blower’s breath has filled a molten form (Growing Vases), or find that a gesture as simple as rolling or folding a sheet of paper can inspire, respectively, an elegant lamp (Maki) and a futuristic computer mouse (Orime). The studio may re-appropriate the strength, flexibility, and surprising sculptural beauty of agricultural netting for a furniture and accessories series that calls to mind the beauty and movement of underwater plants (Farming-Net), or even capture the artistry of a dragonfly’s wing, when magnified, applying it as a patterned textile befitting any interior (Butterfly & Dragonfly).

And then, as happens so often with Nendo’s work, we begin to consider the world around us with fresh eyes, reinterpreting both everyday objects as well as our relationships to them.

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.