Japanese design consultancy Nendo must be staffed by serious workaholics – or, rather, seriously talented workaholics. Just seven years old and with more than 45 design awards under its belt, the group has completed projects across interiors, furniture, products, graphics and architecture, and can name-check clients including Cappellini, Guzzini, Lexus, Oluce, Puma and Swedese.
It has ‘more than 100 projects on the go’, says founder and creative head Oki Sato, from new store interiors for Japanese fashion brand Issey Miyake, exhibition design for Spanish footwear manufacturer Camper in Barcelona and an installation in the Friedman Benda gallery in New York. And all this is created by just six people: five full-time designers (including Sato) and managing director Akihiro Ito. ‘We really enjoy designing,’ says Sato, explaining the workload with masterful understatement.
Sato’s love of design has its roots in the Milan furniture fair. He graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from Waseda University (Japan’s equivalent of Harvard in the US) and, unsure of what to do next, decided to pay a visit to the fair. ‘It was quite interesting to see,’ he says. ‘In architecture school there were so many rules. It was really strict – you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But at the fair, everyone was designing so freely. And I wanted to design the way they were designing.’
Thus inspired, he established Nendo on his return to Tokyo. Nendo means ‘clay’ in Japanese, and Sato says he chose the name because the group wanted its work to have similar soft and fluid connotations.
In fact, the group’s aesthetic is characterised by a typically Japanese simplicity of form coupled with innovation – be that material or technical – that often delivers a moment of surprise.
The Hanabi lamp is a good example: made of shape-memory alloy that responds to changing temperature, the light is a closed cage when off, but blooms into an open flower when switched on. ‘So many products have been designed with only function in mind, it’s time to think more about the emotional response something evokes,’ says Sato. ‘My inspiration is everyday life. I really enjoy those “Aha!” moments – moments when something new or different gives you a pleasant surprise – and I want to share those moments with people.’
Hanabi, the Japanese word for fireworks, literally means flower and fire. ‘Both flowers and fire fade away so quickly and easily. Like its namesake, this light flickers between beauty and disappearance,’ says Sato.
The design was inspired by ‘watching a flower’, he says, and is typical of the way the group works. ‘The story or concept is almost always first, then I find materials that match the story. Although on two recent projects we were given the material first by the clients. These were exceptions for us, but we also really enjoyed this different process.’
One of the projects he is referring to is Blown Fabric, where the group was asked to experiment with Smash, a specialised polyester that can be manipulated into different forms using heat. The group created a series of lights in the style of vernacular Japanese chochin paper lanterns, but, rather than the traditional bamboo frame, the properties of Smash allowed Nendo to shape it like blown glass in one seamless piece.
‘It is impossible to completely control the process, so each one takes a unique form and we can intervene during the production of each piece to create a series of objects with infinitely varied imperfections,’ says Sato.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sato sees fashion designer Issey Miyake as one of his inspirations. Miyake has also experimented with technology and Nendo has worked with him on several projects, including the Cabbage chair, probably the group’s best-known piece. Asked by Miyake to design something from waste paper from the pleated fabric industry, Sato simply peeled a roll of the material to create the chair – no nails or adhesive is required.
Sato is not one for resting on his laurels. When asked which is his favourite project, he says it is always the most recently completed. ‘On the most recent ones, we have used all of our experience and knowledge,’ he says, with the implicit promise that there are many more design surprises to come from this Japanese powerhouse.