Milan 2013: Interview with Nendo’s Oki Sato [VIDEO]

In a courtyard in Brera, there grew a garden of tables… Stone Garden was one of two installations by Nendo Founder and Chief Designer, Oki Sato, for Caesarstone, commissioned to demonstrate the strength and durability of its quartz composite surface materials, more typically used for countertops, flooring and wall cladding.


The second installation, The Stone-Edge Table collection, consisted of seven wooden tables, embellished with corner and leg details. Oki Sato said:

In designing the Stone-Edge Table collection, I was able to take advantage of the strength of the material. Rather than ostentatiously applying the material to the entire design, we created wooden tables and used Caesarstone to protect the table top corners and feet. The subtle stone elements are incorporated to make the tables stronger while drawing focus to the seamless coexistence with the wood. The seven tables vary slightly in size and proportions, each with a different type of Ceasarstone.


I spoke to Oki Sato about these projects and his approach to design.

What’s the most important thing to know about you as a designer?

Nothing! I shouldn’t exist, I am like air or water. It should be the objects that do all the talking. There’s nothing much for you to know about me.

What was the inspiration behind the Stone Garden installation?

When I first met the guys at Caesarstone, they explained how great the material was. It looks like natural stone, but it’s scratch-proof and it’s very sturdy. Instead of me explaining that to people, I wanted to object to explain by itself.

I thought about a small table that only has one leg, so it has to lean; it has to clamp onto other tables to become stable, and by clamping onto each other the tables create this big garden. It was about exploring the boundaries between furniture and space. I was thinking when a table gets bigger and bigger and bigger, it becomes almost like a floor. I was thinking: “At which point can I stand on a table?” And when a table gets smaller, it becomes a side table and when it gets even smaller it becomes a stool; something you can sit on, so at which point can you sit on a table?

I was already thinking about all these things, so when I met the people at Caesarstone, it all came together. I wanted to make something that was less than a table, but when you start adding them together, grows into a floor or a garden. In the end we needed a very strong tabletop, which was scratch proof and very sturdy, so the project explains the character of the material perfectly.


Tell me about the idea of “furniture versus non-furniture…”

I’m trying to think about things that are in between things. It’s like when you’re looking the stars, everybody is looking at the stars and they think: “That’s so beautiful.” But what I’m trying to see is the darkness, the sky that is making the stars look nice, so I’m trying to design the sky itself, the darkness. And then by looking into what’s in between, I’m able to find something that is slightly different; new ideas; very small ideas, but something very interesting.


Can you tell me about the name Nendo, which means “free forming clay” and how that relates to your approach to design?

It’s like Play-Doh, I guess. It’s about freedom, like small kids would play with Play-Doh or clay, changing shapes and sizes and mixing colours – and that’s exactly the way I want to design things; in a very free and flexible way. I named my firm Nendo when I came to Milan for the first time in 2002. Until then I was studying architecture and it was very strict. When I came to Milan everyone was designing things so freely and everyone seemed so happy. It was exactly the way I wanted to design things.

Is that what drew you towards design and away from architecture?

Yes, I guess so, yes. The architecture way of thinking about things, about structure and finishes and every single move you make; you solve problems at every single point; I think architecture taught me a lot of things.


Your aesthetic is very understated, it’s almost minimalist – what inspires that?

It’s about the story behind the object rather than the object itself, so I’m not really interested in forms, or colours or finishes, but it’s about the concept behind the object. I want my objects to talk by themselves, so it’s better that they’re simple – I want the message to be very simple and clear. But sometimes when you make it too minimal, it becomes a little bit too cold. I like my designs to be very friendly. I worked with fashion designer Issey Miyake on a project called the Cabbage Chair, and he said: “The difference between art and design is that with design you have to make people happy in the end. Art – you can do whatever you want, but with design you have to make people happy.” It’s a very simple thing, but that was really inspiring for me. So that’s why I think design should be friendly and that’s why I sometimes have a little humour or something like a ‘spice’ in my designs to make them more friendly. It makes them more accessible to people.


What are you most proud of?

Oh I don’t know! Proud of?! I didn’t think I would be a designer like this, or that I would be in business for ten years, because it is a tough business, so it’s amazing that I’m still surviving. I’m very happy to be able to design things and continue as a designer.


What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?

I think you really have to be addicted to design. I think about design 24 hours a day and… I really like design! I couldn’t work as hard as I do if I was a banker or a lawyer. I get excited about every single project, even though I have so many – I get excited about every single one.


I’ve read that you like to create ‘little moments’ for the people who use your designs. Could you tell me a little bit about what those moments are and how you create them?

It’s all about emotions; small emotions. When I was a student studying architecture, I was taught to see things from a very high point of view. So when I designed a cup for instance, I had to see the city first, and then think about how the building should be designed, and then think about how the room should be designed, and thinking about the furniture and then… therefore I will design this cup – that was how I had to think about it. Now I’m thinking totally the opposite way – I start from very small emotions, small ideas and let it grow into furniture and interiors and buildings and hopefully into cities.


Katie Treggiden is a purpose-driven journalist, author and, podcaster championing a circular approach to design – because Planet Earth needs better stories. She is also the founder and director of Making Design Circular, a program and membership community for designer-makers who want to join the circular economy. With 20 years' experience in the creative industries, she regularly contributes to publications such as The Guardian, Crafts Magazine and Monocle24 – as well as being Editor at Large for Design Milk. She is currently exploring the question ‘can craft save the world?’ through an emerging body of work that includes her fifth book, Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure (Ludion, 2020), and a podcast, Circular with Katie Treggiden.