Oki Sato, head of the firm Nendo, graduated with a master’s degree in architecture from Waseda University in Tokyo. Nendo was formed in 2002, after an encouraging graduation trip to the Milan Design Furniture Fair, which has become one of the most prolific design firms in the world. 

Let us take a look at the review of the interview of Oki Sato, as an International Guest of Honor at IDS, where he speaks about his design process and philosophies. He starts the discussion by talking about when he began to see things differently than a typical Japanese kid would see, which helps him design things. When he visited the Milan Fair, he realized that design is about observing things and enjoying the boring stuff. He noticed that design makes people happy and exciting, and that is how he started ‘Nendo.’ In Japanese, “Nendo” means free-form clay. This soft, fluid substance shows flexibility, changing shapes, and sizes, which symbolizes his methodology of working on a design. Now Nendo has grown so well that it works on 220-230 projects simultaneously and has become a team of 35 design members, which was once started with just 5 designers.

Interviews with Architects: IDSTalks Oki Sato - Sheet1
Oki Sato ©www.interiordesign.net

Oki Sato talks about a complicated question he is often asked, “What is a design?” He describes how he perceives design, his methodology of working, and exploring the design. Design is not about colors, forms, or creating something different, but about finding things, noticing small differences in everyday life, capturing those small moments, and then trying to recreate it into something easier to understand and share with people. He feels that those small moments of happiness, surprise, or emotional moments make everyday life rich and exciting. So, design, in the end, has to be something that makes people happy.

The question arrives about why to give attention to those “Small” moments. Generally, designers tend to make big ideas to make a big difference. But Oki tries to look with other perspectives through the Butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is like a chaos theory where a small butterfly flying in Shanghai or Beijing per se creates some wind that continuously develops. By the time it reaches far away like Seattle or Texas, the wind turns into a strong tornado wave by that time. So, the design need not be started with big things or big ideas. Still, it should be created through small or tiny ideas that not many people would even care about, but gradually those small ideas would develop and evolve into something like this effect. That is the ideal way of designing things.

When he studied architecture, he was told by his teacher to see things from a very high point of view, like first designing the city, the neighborhood, the street, and then thinking about how the building should be developed. Furthermore, think about the interiors, furniture, and then other things around and placed on that furniture, which is known as the top to the down style of thinking. But after ten years of experience, Oki feels that design thinking should be the opposite, the bottom-up way of thinking. He starts to think from the perspective of small objects first, then the furniture, the room interior, the building, and then gradually how that small idea could develop into the cityscape. Social media support this gradual development. Nowadays, people worldwide can find exciting things and create things around in everyday life, making the information huge. He thinks that this is the real way how the design works in this era.

Interviews with Architects: IDSTalks Oki Sato - Sheet2
Offset-Frame Chair for Kokuyo ©www.dezeen.com

The next question arrives about how to find these small moments from our everyday life. Oki Sato shares several tips about how to find these moments, like not to focus on things. When we start focusing and think about designing a product or something, we start researching it. We start ignoring the things around it and focus on that object, which is not how to see things correctly. So, when we try not to see the item, we can see the thing surrounding it, which helps find these small ideas. Another tip is to relax, try not to find and define things. When you try to find ideas, you never find exciting ideas. So, don’t try to find it but catch it from the surrounding. Treasure the monotonous routine is one of the ways. Generally, designers hate boring work. They try and want to do something different every day. When you keep up and continue to do the same things every day, you start noticing the small differences and small changes in everyday life moments. That’s Sato’s way to catch small ideas as it continues, so you bump into small ideas. It is not about creating fancy forms and unique colors, but it’s about bumping into little things that could turn out exciting and surprising.

The next question arises when you find these ideas, how to record those into the brain. Oki believes that the brain is made to forget things, especially people who tend to forget the small stuff. So, he tries to convert that idea from just recording to thinking logically about converting that feeling and emotions by designing things. Sato noticed several small rules in those surprising moments. One of the rules is: It felt like ‘A’ instead of ‘B,’ which is like when you see something, it seems solid, but by touch, it ends up being soft. By creating such emotions, it makes surprises to the human mind. This is the fundamental rule that when you are thinking about small ideas, and as a designer, he thinks about how he could surprise the users. He further explains a big difference between designing ‘A’ and designing something that ‘feels like A.’ The idea of designing something that ‘feels like A’ gives the flexibility to perceive how people think and design in different ways. It frees the mind space, imagination power. This is the way of Oki Sato thinking and designing things, where design is about who is the user group and becomes a message to people using it.

Interviews with Architects: IDSTalks Oki Sato - Sheet3
Installation at Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair ©hbl.blogspot.com

Further, Sato talks about some principles he follows while designing. Some keywords he explains are; Outline, Error, Process, Multiply, Conceal, Skin, Balance, Link, Fold, and Magnify. He feels that the world comprises different borders like light and shadow, mine and yours, inside and outside. Outline means finding or noticing the boundaries in everyday life and shifting or blurring through the design. Sato explains that people think of design as problem-solving, but sometimes you need to create errors and solve them wrong. Sometimes it’s about solving problems by making some. He feels that the process matters more than the final project as it defines the object’s quality.

Interviews with Architects: IDSTalks Oki Sato - Sheet4
Keywords for Designing ©Nendo, Oki Sato

Multiplying is like the leaves of the tree, where every element is a copy-paste but not the same, where you are creating the meaning to it. Even though the leaves are grown by the same rule, the leaves’ timing and position have different character and purpose. So, when Sato finds something interesting, he likes to multiply it. He gives an example of floating hats in an exhibition in Tokyo and chair art at a London exhibition. When a client asks to highlight something, he tries to conceal the context. So, he tries to mask it or hide everything, which eventually intends to focus. Sato likes to design the skin. He further elaborates that it’s not about the function inside and wraps it up with the skin, but sometimes the skin can have a function or an emotional value. He gave the example of lamps he designed using an alloy that would open by itself like a flower when the heat is generated through the light inside.

Design is about finding a new balance. He thinks that every object need not be stable or strong, but it can be sustained by finding balances inside, defining a new relationship between people and things. The fold is about seeing things from 2 dimensional to folding, rolling, twirling, which helps make the things simple yet exciting. Magnifying is a change of scale that makes a different meaning out of the object. When the scale changes, the name and function changes. He wraps the discussion by saying when he makes people happy through design, he is happy. 

Interviews with Architects: IDSTalks Oki Sato - Sheet5
Nendo’s exhibition design for Akio Hirata’s exhibition of hats in Tokyo ©Daici Ano

Nendo’s purpose is to reconstitute everyday life by remodeling it into something easy to understand. Nendo believes there are many small moments of surprise concealed in everyday life, and they want people to encounter their designs to explore those moments of surprise intuitively. He explains that when a client comes to him to design something, instead of literally, he looks for different ways of solving that problem, making the object much exciting. We can learn to design with a new perspective from the discussion, where designing could be started with tiny things that can evolve into something big. With the increase in the fashion of forms, the design should be about who the user group is and becomes a message to people using it. The design should not create different shapes, forms, colors, or materials, but about how people feel about products or being in that space or situation.


Swara is an architect and a keen traveler with a significant interest in writing and blogging. She likes to work on exploratory yet grounded approaches and understands architecture from the perspective of human values and sensitivity. She believes that if drawings speak more, words articulate the most.