Riding a Wave of Success

The fifth floor of a tacky brown 1970s building on a sleepy Tokyo side street overlooking the muddy Meguro River is not exactly where you’d expect to find the up-and-coming design firm Nendo. But founder and chief designer Oki Sato has built a career on creating the unexpected. “As soon as I saw this office’s floor space,” the 30-year-old says, “I knew this was the place.”

Everything in the brightly renovated interior is white or off-white except for splashes of green potted plants and scattered moldy fish tanks, both left over from photo shoots. And though two huge bay windows on each side let in streams of light, walking through the office is like moving through the underbelly of a ship: it is punctuated by narrow hallways, portholes, and doorways that you have to step—or trip—over. Nendo moved into the Meguro location last October from its previous space in Mejiro, which had the firm divided into three isolated rooms for staff, management, and meetings. Sheets of Japanese oak with dripping oval cutouts split the new workplace into four sections—a meeting area, staff and management work spaces, and storage—making the entire room feel like a rowboat bobbing on waves. According to Sato, the panels are supposed to look “saggy,” like a piece of cloth or a drape, and they give the office a playful pliability.

The eight staff members pop their heads over the drooping divides to ask one another questions and chat. “It’s necessary that we feel comfortable,” Sato says. When they sit down at their desks, the staggered openings block out the other three areas, offering some privacy without shutting out ambient room noise altogether. Sato had originally considered using glass walls to divvy up the new office but thought better of it. “That would’ve blocked out the ambient sound,” he explains as Japanese pop music floats through the space. Likewise, doors were nixed in favor of clear-plastic factory curtains. “We wanted to work freely without borders.” Factory curtains aside, the office also draws on Japanese traditions and Buddhist temples. Space is similarly partitioned in temples, where visitors must step over dividers as they enter. But Nendo’s wooden panels aren’t permanent and can be rearranged or removed at any time. “They’re not pillars or walls or part of the building’s structure,” the designer says. “They’re closer to furniture.”

Sato didn’t select “Nendo” as his company’s moniker by accident. The word means “Play-Doh” in Japanese—fitting for a firm whose malleable signature runs through everything from chewing-gum packaging and Tetris-style ­coffee tables to a house made entirely of drawers. In the together-yet-separate Meguro office, Nendo has crafted a work space befitting its portfolio and embodying its design philosophy. “This is the way Nendo works,” Sato says. “Things must be apart, but there must be linkage.”

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