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5 Minutes with Oki Sato

The nendo founder talks to Tamsin Bradshaw about travel, the ‘foreigner’ perspective, and uncovering the hidden value in design.

5 Minutes with Oki Sato

Oki Sato, the famed Founder of Japanese design studio nendo, needs little introduction. His clean-lined designs, which transform the everyday into something new, while maintaining an apparently simple appearance, have won him global appeal. So much so that he spends much of his time travelling the world, working on galleries in New York, malls in Bangkok, chocolates in Japan and contemporary rocking horses in Italy.

This month, his travels took him to Taipei, where he was acting as Chair of the Jury for the Golden Pin Design Award 2016, which celebrated designs that cater to huaren (Chinese-speaking) communities around the world. We caught up with him at the awards, where he gave us an insight into his fresh, simple perspective on life, work, travel and never seeing the normal in anything.

How did you find being Chair of the Jury for the Golden Pin Design Award this year?

Being chair of the jury is a lot of pressure! When you enter the [judging] room, it’s filled with hundreds of objects. There’s a toilet, and a jacket beside it, and a chair beside that. You have to say this toilet is better than that jacket and that jacket is better than that chair. It’s difficult to judge them by the same standard.

We realised that we needed to find a certain rule within the judging process. It’s not about functions; it’s not too much about innovation. It’s more about emotional values. We decided that it would be a nicely designed product if it creates a certain link with people. It doesn’t have to be great looking.

Which projects most inspired you at the Golden Pin Design Award?

My favourites were very simple in a way, and they provided simple solutions to problems. The more complicated it gets, you lose the purity of the concept.

I think design is always about storytelling. To tell a clear and beautiful story, it has to be solved in a simple and beautiful way. It has to have that “Why didn’t I think of this before?” kind of effect. That’s why the judging process was really inspiring.

In the first round, we had to vote by sticking these dots on the products we liked. There were six, seven judges, and some of the projects had six, seven dots that everyone thought was great. Then there were some that only had one or two. We said, “Okay, why don’t you bring your favourite, something that is really inspiring to you, and we’ll present it to the other judges?”

It was interesting that everyone started to discover these hidden values. Some of these projects that only had one or two dots to start with made it into the top 20; some of them even seemed better than those we initially gave seven dots. That’s what makes design really interesting.

Where do you see design – and huaren design in particular – going in future?

There is no certain trend at the moment. I think design is moving in so many different directions, it’s very difficult to find a single answer now. Which I think is making design really interesting.

At the moment, I think people are sitting down and thinking: What do we really need in our lives? It’s not about comparing things with other people; it’s not about brands. It’s about finding what fits into your lifestyle. People are getting more and more clever, and they understand what they really need in their lives. Designers need to find not a single answer, but to find different options that the customers can choose from. People want to become part of the design process.

It’s becoming more individual. When you look at the Salone – Milan Design Week – it’s not about presenting that iconic piece, or something that’s super artistic. It’s about offering different sizes, colours… you can change materials, you can customise. It’s about trying to offer an entire system, not a single object.

What would you design if you had no limitations – no restrictions on budget and on what you wanted to design?

Sometimes we have clients who say they have a lot of budget and no schedule, you can spend as much time as you want, and you can do whatever you want. That is the most challenging situation, because I don’t have anything that I want to do. I cannot solve a problem if there’s no problem to solve.

Sometimes we present very artistic pieces, but there’s always a client behind that – like a gallery or a museum that has challenged us with new materials. But we need limitations. That’s the difference between designers and artists.

Basically, I don’t have anything in my house. Several books, a bed, and that’s it. And I have a dog, Kinako. My home is almost like a gallery – it’s like a hotel. I really don’t buy things; I don’t own things. It’s really strange that I’m designing so many things for so many people, but I don’t need these things myself.

You were born in Canada and spent some time there as a child. Do you feel this has influenced your approach to design?

I don’t think Canadian culture affects my design directly. When I was 10 years old, I moved from Toronto to Tokyo, and I would enjoy things that normal Japanese kids would feel was a normal part of their everyday lives. I was a foreigner. This way of seeing things is very important as a designer: to enjoy things that others find normal. Seeing things from a different angle, trying to solve things in that kind of manner.

When you’re a designer, and you feel that things are normal, that’s when you close the door and think, that’s it, then. Whereas if you think that things might be interesting and different, that’s the starting point of everything.

Your business is so global: you’re working on projects all over the world. How do you manage?

I travel too much! I travel a little bit less than two weeks every month. It’s like a world tour. I start from Bangkok, then I fly to Paris, Milan, London, Copenhagen, then New York. Every day you’re on a different flight; you spend every night in a different hotel. Basically, I’m always jetlagged.

I’ve been to Barcelona 30 or 40 times, but I’ve never been out of the airport. I know where the Starbucks is, but I’ve never been into the city. All my clients come to the business lounge, we have our meeting there and then I fly somewhere else.

So when I’m in Tokyo, I want to be calm. I really like to stay at home, I just like sketching.

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