When is a chair not a chair?

The exhibition looks at the gray areas between physical, cultural and conceptual interfaces.

‘Softer than Steel’ – The addition of surprising angles and directions to metal rods gives them a new functionality and a light, flexible feel (photo credit: NENDO)
‘Softer than Steel’ – The addition of surprising angles and directions to metal rods gives them a new functionality and a light, flexible feel
(photo credit: NENDO)
The Japanese have a propensity for attending to minutiae. That is evident from practically every item on show at the “Nendo: The Space in Between” exhibition, which opened at the Holon Design Museum last week and runs until the end of October.
Everywhere you look in the show, which occupies three display areas, there is food for thought and captivating aesthetics.
As the title suggests, the exhibition looks at the gray areas between physical, cultural and conceptual interfaces.
The lineup is divided into six thematic sections relating to the interstices between processes, textures, boundaries, objects, relationships and senses.
The mind behind the eye-opening offering belongs to 38-year-old, Canadian- born and internationally feted Japanese designer Oki Sato.
Sato’s principal creative base is in Milan, where he enjoys the services of around 30 seasoned designers and interns.
And they really churn out the goods, driven by their self-confessed workaholic boss. In a recent interview, Sato said that at the time he was working on 400 projects in tandem.
The Space in Between draws the observer into an enchanted world of mixed physical metaphors, surprising juxtapositions, objects that deceive the eye and thoroughly entertaining quirkiness.
Take, for example, the fetching cluster of 20 Shivering Bowls. At first you think you are looking at a bunch of sleekly textured receptacles. The smooth ceramic exteriors are a balm to the soul, but then something weird happens. A tremor runs through the seemingly rigid bowls. You notice the oscillating white fan and realize that, in fact, the objects are wafer thin and not pottery.
“We located the intersection of eros and design in the spiritual pleasure provided by an object’s touch, and decided to make an extremely thin bowl out of silicon,” says Sato of the contribution of Nendo, his company, to a recent international trade show.
The accent is on challenging visual preconceptions.
“The bowl changes shape as easily as liquid when it is touched, and continues to quiver momentarily in response to this outside force,” he says.
It does make you think, and raises an eyebrow quickly followed by a smile.
The curve-ball element is a constant throughout the show. Take, for example, Float. It looks for all the world like a common or garden stool. In fact, you would probably even describe it as a plain, wholly unremarkable household object.
But you sense something is not quite as orderly as first seems, and then note that two of the legs don’t quite make it all the way from the base to the seating surface.
That, says the designer, has practical and sensory implications.
“By utilizing the cantilever that only supports the back legs, a cushiony feel has been given, with the intent to provide a varied comfortable seating experience,” Sato states.
The “Between the Object” section of the exhibition also features Softer Than Steel, which treads the structural and visual dividing line between the seat tangents and the intriguing MINIM+AID. The latter is, in essence, a multipurpose emergency kit that incorporates various basic commodities one might need in a hurry, but, typically, in unexpected positions.
Besides the aesthetic curiosity factor, the left-field object ethos also tends toward the environmental side of the tracks, getting us to reconsider our approach to substances and products, and what we do with them when they are no longer considered useful.
A prime example is the fun and self-explanatory Cabbage Chair. The idea for the work came from a request by veteran Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake to create a piece of furniture from the paper waste of a pleated fabric manufacturing process.
“Our solution to his challenge transformed a roll of pleated paper into a small chair that appears, naturally, as you peel away its outside layers, one layer at a time,” Sato explains.
Japan suffers its fair share of natural disasters – from earthquakes to tsunamis – and preventive structural reinforcement is a recurrent theme in the designer’s output.
“Resins added during the original paper production process add strength and the ability to remember forms,” Sato continues. “The pleats themselves give the chair elasticity and a springy resilience.
[This gives] an overall effect that looks almost rough, but gives the user a soft, comfortable seat experience.”
One of the most captivating exhibits is Rain Bottle. The string of 16 bottles is, at first glance, simply an alluring item that exudes a characteristically Japanese take on aesthetics. Then you begin to notice the subtle differences between the receptacles, and discern shapes suspended in the motionless liquid.
The name of the work might appear oblique, but it alludes to a singular, meteorologically derived Japanese semantic delicacy.
It transpires that the Japanese language has no fewer than 22 words or expressions for precipitation. The correct epithet can differ according to time of day, the intensity of the rain and even whether the wet stuff in question is just a single droplet distended from the end of a branch. All these nuances, and more, are deftly conveyed in the bottle lineup.
CONSIDERING SATO’S mixed cultural baggage, I wondered how much of that comes to bear in his work, and the designer says it is not a conscious factor in his creative line of thought.
“I make it a point to not really think about those kinds of things,” he notes, instead citing a formative disciplinary influence.
“I think studying architecture at university in Japan, and furniture and product design and so on in Italy after graduation, is probably the reason that brings me [to] mix many factors and culture,” he says.
Even so, he cites his relocation as a wakeup call.
“The place I grew up in Canada was very rural. That’s why I got a cultural shock when I moved to central Tokyo,” he explains. “Everything looked fresh and interesting to me. Because of this experience, I can easily find extraordinary or fun things in everyday life.”
Presumably, keeping to a hectic, globe-trotting schedule necessitates a very focused and serious mind-set.
While Sato clearly has this in his makeup, there is a definite comic element to his work, too.
“I think I need a pinch of humor or friendliness,” he says. “I like my designs very simple. But I don’t want to make them cold. That’s why I sometimes have a little humor or something like a ‘spice’ in my designs to make them friendlier. It makes them more accessible to people.”
Indeed, there is ne’er a dull moment in “The Space in Between.”
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