Features

Waste not, want not: Nendo Design Studio

March 12, 2009

It’s only been five years, but Japanese design newcomer Nendo has the design greats firmly under its spell.

If design was literature, Oki Sato and his crew would probably be known as poets. But design’s got nothing much to do with literature, and in fact Sato isn’t a man of many words. So instead of describing Nendo’s products, spaces, graphics and architecture in the terms used by gushing design writers – emotive, sensory, refined – a simple exclamation mark has to do.

Nendo wants to create that ‘!’ experience. In other words, products that capture everyday moments of perfect mental clarity – the moments cartoonists communicate with a light bulb above a protagonist’s head.

The Nendo story is flawless fairy tale material. It goes like so: young architecture graduate visits the Milan Furniture Fair and, inspired, begins to design products back home. Not long after, the company he set up with a number of pals from university wins a major national award for one of his lighting designs and he is on his way. Two years after his initial visit, he’s back in Milan with a collection of products and a modest display, and his talent is soon scooped up by international manufacturing giants.

Today, the studio churns out products for some of design’s biggest names – mainly Italian design greats, Cappellini etc. – and takes phone calls from dignitaries who compete for Nendo’s precious time to work on installations and art-based products. The output is wide and varied, with versatility embedded in its name – Nendo means ‘clay’ in Japanese.

Among the clients is car manufacturer Lexus, for which Nendo created the Diamond chair installation displayed at the most recent Milan Furniture Fair. The one-off piece explored entirely new production processes – too complicated to elaborate on in such a short article. Sato, however, says all of his projects start with a simple idea. If the execution of this idea requires complex technology, then so be it, but it won’t be the driver for his design.

On the other hand, he’s also entirely capable of only using the simplest production methods, as seen in his Cabbage chair created for an exhibition curated by fashion designer Issey Miyake. When asked by Miyake to design something from wastepaper of the pleated fabric industry, Sato simply decided to peel a roll of the material until arriving at the shape of a chair – no pins, no nails, no glue required.

Yet while Nendo’s products in their simple cleverness could easily be described as modern and functional – in the vein of so many clean-lined Japanese creations – what sets Sato et al apart is the design intent, because functionality has nothing much to do with it.

“So many products have been designed with function only in mind, it’s time to think more about the emotional response something evokes,” says 31-year-old Sato, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Canada and graduated from Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, which claims to have educated the majority of Japan’s postwar prime ministers.

So that’s the ‘!’ moment. When we turn the light bulb-shaped switch that’s modelled on the flash you create when changing a bulb with the power on, or when the mouth-shaped handles of Nendo-designed teapots remind us what a lubricant for communication a cuppa can be, Nendo doesn’t want us to think ‘Oh, this is so practical’, but ‘Oh, I’d never thought of it like that before.’

Although you could say this approach is unique to this Japanese collective, it’s something more and more designers aspire to as a way of differentiating themselves from a sea of similar products. Dutch group Droog design would be the most obvious – and famous – example.

For Nendo, appealing to a user’s sensory and intellectual experiences goes further than just making work. Naturally, the group has contemplated the role of the mass-produced design object versus the one-off exemplar of fine craftsmanship.

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No doubt we may love something more if it’s made just for us, but what’s practical from a financial and economic perspective? How can designers create something that makes us want to bond with it, like a piece of art or cherished heirloom, but which comes at an affordable price and allows designers to justify – and pay for – the laborious process of modelling, prototyping and manufacture.

According to Sato, the answer is 100 or, put differently, One Percent. It’s the name of the company Sato recently founded. 100 stands for the number of items that should be manufactured to be able to economically utilise modern production methods; one percent stands for a buyer’s stake of ownership of the total production run. Selling solely through the internet, One Percent will never produce second editions of the candles, chairs and magazine racks on offer. Sold out means sold out.

“We think that this is the best way to make products people can cherish and enjoy,” says Sato, reporting that the new brand – which also relies on Nendo’s proven ‘!’ approach – is a big hit. A win-win situation for both owner and creator. It’s one percent ownership, 100 percent happiness, 101 percent emotional design.

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