Oki Sato is having a slow month. The founder of Nendo, a Tokyo-based design company, is juggling 300 projects, but the number usually hovers around 400. It’s a workload that seems like a recipe for burnout, but Sato insists that he finds it relaxing. If he had only two or three clients, he says, he’d never stop fretting over them. “Traditionally, the thinking is the fewer projects you do the better quality you can deliver,” he says, sitting in his stylishly spare office as Kinako, his Chihuahua-pug cross, snores nearby. “But I don’t necessarily think the more time you spend thinking, the better ideas you come up with. Focus is more important. That’s the key to coming up with good ideas quickly.” Fittingly for the head of a company whose name means “clay”, it is as though Sato has remodelled the very concept of overwork into a peculiar form of stress relief.
Sato is 41, but with his mop of carefully tousled hair he could pass for a decade younger. Since he founded Nendo in 2002 he has overseen the designs for an astonishing array of products, ranging from cheap, disposable pens to high-end furniture for interior-design mavens such as Cappellini, Fritz Hansen and Minotti. He has designed public parks, museum spaces and, most recently, the interior of the next-generation trains for the TGV, France’s high-speed rail network. Even Sanrio, creators of Hello Kitty, the cartoon cat behind a multi-billion-dollar franchise, came to Sato when they wanted to give their character a new twist. “We have to be adaptive,” he grins. In 2016 Dezeen, a British architecture and design website, anointed him the world’s most popular designer.
His popularity is based on playfulness. People outside Japan, he says, tend to think of Japanese design in terms of ritualised minimalism, formality and restraint. Its artists and designers have been influencing Western style since the opening of the nation’s ports in 1860, when an abundance of pottery, furniture, silks and prints wowed the European and American avant-garde. Back then Japan offered a dose of rustic exoticism, but now it means something else. Consumers turn to Muji’s austere housewares, Uniqlo’s alluringly plain fashions and Marie Kondo’s “Japanese art” of decluttering for a sense of escape and renewal, an antidote to the speed and complexity of modern life. Sato’s prodigious output shares some of this clean simplicity, but none of its mirthless rigidity. His work includes flights of fancy such as Manga Chairs (pictured) sprouting wild spokes evoking the lines that suggest motion in comic-book panels, and “shivering bowls” moulded from a material so wobbly that, at the slightest touch, they tremble like jellyfish. At the Triennale Design Museum in Milan, where the bowls were first shown in 2012, Sato positioned dozens of them in front of an oscillating fan, creating a pulsating tableau like a tabletop coral reef. When a client commissions him, he tries to make something “they themselves don’t even realise they want…There’s an element of surprise. Surprise is what makes people happy.”
Sato was born in 1977 in Toronto, where his father was working, and spent the first decade of his life in rural Canada. He claims to have shown little interest in art or design as a child; instead he immersed himself in anime and manga comics from his home country. “I see Doraemon as my personal master, my maestro,” Sato says of Japan’s most popular cartoon character, a robot cat from the future with a bottomless pocket of wacky gadgets, which in many ways resemble Nendo’s playful products. Sato also escaped into the videogames of Nintendo and other Japanese companies. Years later, after moving back to Japan, he became so good at Puyo Puyo, a Tetris-like game but with cute jelly-blobs instead of blocks, that he became Tokyo’s regional champion.
After finishing school in Japan, he enrolled in the architecture programme at prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. “I wasn’t much of a student,” he laughs. It wasn’t that he was lazy – anything but. Sato has an overwhelming drive to excel, but chafed at the narrow focus of the curriculum. Rather than studying, he spent his time drawing caricatures for pocket money. Sato submitted exaggerated portraits of local celebrities to magazines and to a prime-time TV show called “Waratte Iitomo”, which ran a caricature competition. He won it so many times that the hosts eventually crowned him the programme’s top cartoonist.
The passion that Sato poured into these whimsical pursuits soon found a new vessel. In 2002 he visited the Salone del Mobile in Milan, the world’s biggest design fair. It opened his eyes, he says, to what he calls “the fun of design”. In Italy he finally found the freedom he had yearned for as an architecture student: “Interior designers producing teacups. Fashion designers doing interiors. There wasn’t any sense of limits or genres. The sheer diversity of the designs, things I’d never even imagined, left a great impression on me. Not any specific product, but rather the realisation of just how broad a field design could be.”
His sense of whimsy manifested itself in his earliest projects, such as a collection called Sinking about Furniture in 2003 (pictured). A play on the Japanese pronunciation of “thinking”, the footstools, tables and shelves can’t actually be used; their angles are carefully cut so that they appear to be submerged within the floor.
Sato’s originality, even when it came at the expense of practicality, attracted the attention of luminaries from the world of Italian design, such as Giulio Cappellini and the late furniture designer Maddelena de Padova. With their encouragement he founded Nendo with a group of like-minded friends. The firm’s big break came in 2008, when Sato was approached by Issey Miyake, a Japanese fashion designer. Miyake, who is known for his intricately pleated clothing, manufactures his fabric using a process involving sheets of paper that are discarded after use. He asked Sato to try and come up with a method for recycling them.
Sato’s idea was to take bundles of wastepaper and make them into a chair by slicing them down the side and peeling the layers back like a banana. When Sato showed Miyake a tentative work-in-progress, Miyake loved it and immediately declared the design finished. The Cabbage Chair (pictured), as it came to be known, recalls Frank Gehry’s crafty cardboard furniture from the 1970s, but seems even more resourceful. “I had always felt it necessary to have a clear goal in mind when designing,” says Sato. “Issey taught me the opposite. Sometimes you need to let the goal find you.”
Sato’s thinking still comes in cartoon form. Sitting in one of the meeting rooms in his studio in Tokyo, which overlooks the crown prince’s leafy estate, he plucks a pen off the table. It’s a ballpoint called the bLen, which Nendo designed in 2018 for Zebra, a Japanese company. As they worked on it, Sato and his team conducted a huge amount of research into the mechanisms that affect how a pen writes, and, in order to improve the balance of the pen and reduce the rattling that afflicts most disposable biros, added extra weights, springs and clasps to the inner workings of their pen. The project page on Nendo’s website explains all of this with a simple line-drawn cartoon. The weight is illustrated with a dumpy little figure sitting on the floor with its tiny feet splayed out, the spring is a mightily extending stick figure, and the clasp stands beneath the pen with its arm raised to hold the nib steady. Personifying the interactions between the various components allows them to be understood at a glance.
At the other end of the spectrum from the disposable pen are the Tangle Tables (pictured), which Sato designed for Cappellini in 2016. A series of stackable end-tables, the idea was initially illustrated with a figure whose arm is wrapped around the leg of a table as though the two are the best of friends. When the tables were finished, their legs were more intricately entwined. They look like lovers on a date. He followed this with the Roof Collection, a desk and console which came in tents like cartoon teepees.
Now Sato has a new method of doodling: 3D printing. “We couldn’t do nearly as many projects without it,” he says. For years, he relied on handmade prototypes, which he would have shipped to wherever he was in the world so he could carry on working on them. When he first discovered 3D-printing machines, they were so expensive that there was concern they would bankrupt the company. But as costs have fallen, the devices have come to play an integral role in Sato’s work. When Christian Andresen, head of design at Fritz Hansen, a Danish firm, first approached Sato about designing a chair, Sato was unsure. “A few months later,” Andresen says, “a small package arrived at my desk, with three small 3D-printed chairs.” They were models of the N01, an elegant and restrained wooden creation launched in 2018, with a gently curving veneer seat and backrest that appear to float in a cradle of arms and legs. Products that once began as cocktail-napkin brainstorms can now leap fully formed from a machine.
For anyone familiar with the fantasies of anime or the stylishly squashed proportions of classic Japanese video-game characters like Pikachu or Mario, the whimsy of Japanese creators has never been in doubt. What’s unusual about Sato is how he has married that with what Andresen labels Nendo’s “Japanese perfectionism”, all without sacrificing fun for formality. “A good design”, Sato says, “is anything you can explain to your mother over the telephone.” It’s an idea as amusingly minimalist as his work.