The Surprising Origins Of Nendo’s Gorgeous Minimalism

A new exhibit explores the historical precedents of Oki Sato’s wildly prolific Japanese design studio Nendo.

Oki Sato, the designer behind Tokyo-based studio Nendo, is known as much for his ceasless creativity as he is for making objects that inspire a sense of playfulness and delight. Consider his recent line of chairs inspired by comic books or his wire-frame “Trace” cabinets–or any of the other products his 25-person studio has put out in a span of 14 years.


A new exhibition at the Design Museum Holon in Israel traces the varied, and sometimes surprising, origins of Sato’s prolific practice.

Ory Bartal, the head of the department of history and theory at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, sees Sato’s practice as existing between two minimalist traditions: the Muromachi period of 14th-16th century Japan, and European modernism. The former, Bartal writes in the exhibition’s catalog, is informed by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism–a “form of visual expression [that] was not created by architects or designers, but rather by tea masters such as Murata Jukō, Takeno Joou, and Sen no Rikyu, who developed a new concept of simplicity.” On the other hand is the Bauhaus movement, which came to Japan in the 1920s and 1930s through the works of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, and solidified under American occupation.

“These different styles and historical periods are also distinguished by the use of distinct materials–perishable natural materials during the Muromachi period versus timeless industrial materials in the modern period,” Bartal writes. Take, for example, Nendo’s blown fabric lamps, which are created using industrial optical fibers, but take the shape of traditional Japanese paper lanterns. Similarly, Nendo’s bamboo steel collection takes the Japanese process of bamboo-weaving and applies it to metal. It also alludes to Charlotte Perriand’s Tokyo Chaise Longue 522, a recreation of Le Corbusier’s metal chaise longue in bamboo.

Despite these historical antecedents, Sato’s work distinguishes itself from other types of minimalism with his dedication to playfulness and storytelling. The “cabbage chair” is a good example of this: originally made from a roll of pleated paper that was byproduct in the production of Issey Miyake’s clothes, it unravels into a beautiful and unusual chair. “Emotional elements will always play a central role in my work,” Sato tells the exhibition’s curator Maria Cristina Didero in an interview for the catalog. “From there it’s a matter of choosing the technologies, materials, and traditional craftsmanship that is most fitting for those emotional elements, almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. When the pieces fit together perfectly, that’s when innovation occurs.”

The Space in Between will be on view at the Design Museum Holon until October 29.

[All Images: courtesy Nendo]


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.