“An object has to be functional but has to be fun,” explained designer Oki Sato in a recent interview, “because the word ‘fun’ is inside of ‘function.’” Such wordplay speaks to the spirit of the work produced by Sato’s iconic design studio nendo. Sato’s search for the playful in the everyday has given rise to hundreds of new formal and material combinations, such as chairs fashioned out of recycled reams of paper, speakers made with coiled strips of beechwood, and household objects — buckets, vases, and tote bags — rendered with quirky asymmetries. Innate to Sato’s practice is his perceptiveness to the beauty that already exists in our material world.
That something so ubiquitous as a pair of chopsticks can spark moments of wonder is perhaps no surprise, especially for those already familiar with the rich variety of lacquered wood chopsticks made in the small town of Obama in the Fukui prefecture. In 2013, nendo teamed up with the Obama-based chopstick manufacturer Hashikura Matsukan to develop and produce six designs, each of which shows how formal playfulness can stem from a solid foundation of traditional craftsmanship.
The Hanataba chopsticks, for instance, take as their point of departure the circumferential outline of the chopstick, which has traditionally been limited to a circle or a more rectilinear shape like a square or hexagon. Sato’s design sketch illustrates how he conceived of chopsticks that combine the comfort of holding round chopsticks with the less slippery quality of square or hexagonal chopsticks to arrive at a rounded, blossom-shaped outline, which the woodworkers at Hashikura Matsukan, in turn, extruded into a tapered pair of chopsticks.
With their painted and lacquered tops, the Hanataba chopsticks form a “bouquet” when gathered into a bundle, revealing colorful patterns with the simple, semi-unconscious acts of separating, pairing, and grouping the chopsticks together. In a similar vein, the Sukima chopstick design explores how patterns can form from pairing chopsticks. In this case, Sato and his team broke away from the conventional use of flat graphics to visually match a chopstick with its mate, instead conceiving of the wooden sticks as sculptural objects that can be manipulated in three dimensions. The whittled tops of the Sukima chopsticks reveal intricately carved hearts, spades, clovers, and diamonds, but only when paired together.
Sato and nendo have often taken inspiration from traditional craftsmen, finding new ways to give expression to their craft. The Rassen chopsticks, for instance, demonstrate the carving skills of their makers: the material and volume usually allotted for a single chopstick is carved to form a pair of chopsticks with spiraling tops that can be separated or interlocked to form a single, smooth, cylindrical unit. The Udukuri design, meanwhile, borrows from the woodworking practice of udukuri, or the deepening of natural wood grain with a metal brush, which is typically associated with wood furniture making. Rather than creating a pattern on the shaft of the chopstick with ornamental shells or gold leaf, nendo thought to add polished lacquer over the pronounced natural grooves of the wood, resulting in designs that evoke rusticity and refinement both at once.
These clever combinations of forms and techniques have been the key to the prolific nature of Sato and nendo’s practice. For them, it’s not about revolutionizing the old but rediscovering intuitive connections with familiar objects, often through witty, fun(ctional) manipulations that are light and fleeting, but all the more meaningful for their brevity. “You should not hold your ideas too long, or you should not love your ideas too much,” explained Sato in the same interview. “I want to have my ideas to be like sushi or sashimi — fresh. You just cut the raw fish, and then you serve.”