Oki Sato is really a child at heart. Designing for him is all about having fun, waiting for his ideas to look happy and for his sketches to smile back at him. Take for example the Gacha Gacha miniature capsule toy figurines he designed for Kaiyodo – the type dispensed from vending machines after inserting coins into a slot and turning the knob – or the single-flower vases perched on metal bars for Zens, bringing to mind birds on a wire. There are also the four unconventional hourglasses for INAC with organic-shaped cavities carved from blocks of transparent acrylic, which resemble ant farms – one of 10 different collaborations with Japanese manufacturers such as Blanc Bijou, YKK and Wakazono that examine the notion of movement. They are all representative of his playful yet rational approach. “My style is simple, functional and friendly, but the simple designs are the most difficult ones to achieve because you have to be perfect in every single way,” he discloses.
The poster child for contemporary design from Japan, the young, eloquent and good-looking Sato is setting the tone for design’s future on the global scene, and his firm is one of the most sought-after design studios worldwide. His aim has always been to inject small magical moments with a twist of irony into people’s lives, transforming their interaction with everyday objects. Perhaps this could be the result of moving to crowded, chaotic Tokyo at the age of 10, after having grown up in calm and slow-paced Canada surrounded by nature. “I’m really influenced by the fact that I was a Canadian kid living in Tokyo,” he reminisces. “Suddenly, I was enjoying so many things that normal Japanese kids would find normal. I think that foreigner kind of way of seeing things really helps me as a designer because I feel that special ideas do not exist in special places. My inspiration is from my ordinary life, not from any special events.”
Sato’s creations demonstrate unexpected variations in materials, shapes and colors that deliver surprises. Interested in the story behind the product, his design solutions tell tales that connect with the user while rethinking typologies of form and function, placing him somewhere between the likes of Shiro Kuramata or Naoto Fukasawa and Piero and Achille Castiglioni. He notes, “The story behind a shape is the most important aspect for me. Shape, color and material come next. Checking the first prototype is the most exciting moment.” Although he uses 3D-printed models early in his creative process, he stresses the importance of the initial sketch, whether it’s for chewing gum packaging or a large building, “I make awful sketches, but when you’re very good at sketching, you feel that the design and idea are good as well. If it’s a very bad sketch, but you’re excited, that means your idea is good, so you feel very confident. It’s like a lighthouse for us, leading us back in the direction that we want to go.”