‘Ma’ is also one of the best words to describe the work of Japanese design office Nendo: a group of modest, down-to-earth but extremely talented designers, headed by founder Oki Sato, that in barely 10 years of work has become one of the most prolific studios in the world – without ever compromising on quality.

Sato claims to have learnt the art of allowing a sense of ‘ma’ into objects only a few years ago while working on a specific project (the Cabbage chair) with fashion designer Issey Miyake. “I used to think that I would always have to finish a product and think about all its details. But Miyake taught me that you have to stop somewhere and not complete the object – which is what allows the sense of ‘ma’”.

It may well be true, yet this sort of positive emptiness that fosters the creation of an empathic relationship between people and objects has been in all of Sato’s work from the very beginning.

All things designed by Nendo since 2002 have shown the capacity of the studio to cling onto the same pure, essential and clean language without ever falling into the cold trap of forced minimalism. The warmth that stems from their projects comes from their capacity to suffuse them with lightness, simplicity and a ‘!’ effect.

“Design is for us all about creating little ! moments in everyday life,” says Sato. “Perhaps everything we do seems so light because ideas are so small,” he says, of the simple ideas that are fuelled with a spark of surprise.

Sato was, himself, surprised in the first place when he attended the Salone del Mobile in Milano for the first time back in 2001. “I was taught at university that design and architecture are all about rules. When I went to Milan for the first time I understood that it was not the case,” he explains (hence the decision to open a studio in Milan next to the Tokyo one. “Design is about making people happy.”

Today, his approach is the opposite of what he was taught at university – he starts designing spaces and objects starting from ‘!’ details or stories and then lets the concept grow from there. It works and people are ‘happy’.

The group applies its approach not only to products but also to interiors and architecture, and it is highly appreciated by design companies and by the fashion industry (beside the collaboration with Issey Miyake, they have also designed 250 shops in 80 countries).

And big brands do everything to get them on board to create breathtaking installations (as did Lexus a while back at the Salone del Mobile).

Despite the great amount of work that the group churns out on a yearly basis (“we are working with roughly 80 companies at the same time, we have a lot to think about”), Nendo always finds time to experiment with projects that simply matter to them.

Last year, they worked on the development of a ceramic speaker, for instance, as a contribution to the Revalue Nippon Project launched by former Japanese footballer Nakata Hidetoshi to revitalise the traditional crafts in Japan.

“Ceramic substrate has a high heat resistance, so it is often used for LED bulbs and other heat-emitting internal components and rarely exposed to human eyes,” Sato explains.

“Its computer-controlled manufacture involves shaving thin slices from thicker ceramic slabs, fixing them with mercury vapour and mounting all components with a robot arm; human hands touch no part of the process.

"As the substrate is revealed its function-optimised surface takes on a new decorative role. This reminds us both of the limits of the human hand, and of its infinite, unshakeable attraction, providing a glimpse into the future of craft.”

While this year, beside numerous productions for top brands like Cappellini, Moroso, Lema, Foscarini and Driade, as well shops for Puma and cutlery for Japan-wide curry chain restaurant Coco Ichibanya (just to name a few), they provided their audience with some extremely dreamlike pieces, such as the transparent series for Galleria Jannone in Milan and the shelves Dancing Squares for Singapore’s Art Stage.

“The gallery world used to be a scene of tremendously costly artworks and objects but nowadays they are looking for new ideas,” said Sato in a recent interview to Cathelijne Nuijsink (DAMnº 28, April 2011). “It allows us to experiment with new materials and techniques.”

At 33, Sato has gone very far in terms of career and international recognition. Yet his aspiration remains very simple, to “keep on doing what I love: design”. Maybe there lies the reason for Nendo’s success. 

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