Nendo’s Station Plaza Design Revolutionises the Idea of Traditional Inspiration

In the Nara prefecture of southwest Japan something mystical and high-concept has been growing for the past three years. Nendo, the design company famed for minimalist products, have made a first and bold foray into public space design, with the Tenri Station plaza, in their project CoFuFun.

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For Nendo Chief Designer Oki Sato, design is all about “giving people a small ‘!’ moment,” and CoFuFun is no exception. The previously unused 6,000sqm site site outside the station has been filled with domes and inverted domes of varying sizes, pure white, stacked, and detailed with steps and facilities. The shapes are inspired by cofun, monolithic burial sites common in the surrounding area.

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“I thought it beautiful that the old tombs were familiar to everyday landscape in this city” Oki says of a design centred squarely on the local community.

The space includes bicycle rental, a cafe, shops, an information kiosk, a play area, an outdoor stage, and a meeting area. The distinctive circular shapes were constructed on-site from huge pieces of a circular precast concrete mould, “resembling a huge pizza” and re-assembled on site using huge cranes. The cofun theme is developed through the interconnecting circles of the custom-designed fixings and furniture of the interiors, which is built using wood from the local Nara prefecture.

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The stepped surfaces provide access to the cofuns, as well as shelving, lounge areas, and a dramatic setting for the night-time illumination. “It’s a ‘ambiguous’ space that’s entirely a cafe, a playground and a massive piece of furniture, all at once,” Oki explains.

The ambiguous name is easily explained, though: a combination of ‘cofun’ and the colloquial Japanese expression “fufun”, referring to happy, unconscious humming. It’s a space with an atmosphere, Oki hopes, that “unconsciously leads visitors to hum, happily, while they’re there.”

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THE PLUS: It’s your first public space – how did this change the way you designed, in comparison with your previous work?
Oki Sato:
The design process remains the same regardless of what the object may be. Of course there will be a number of technical differences between designing a small piece of chocolate and a large interior or public space, but in both cases it will be living human beings that are coming into contact with the designs. 

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TP: So there was a lot that you could carry through from your previous design work?
OS:
We tried to design a huge item of furniture, instead of an architectural piece. We focused on creating a “friendly” atmosphere, and tried not to limit the usage of the space. We think it is important to leave some area for the users to decide.

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TP: White is a bold colour, which we often see in your projects – how will it be cleaned and maintained as time passes?
OS:
This design is not completed just by its shape, but also by the cooperation of the citizens in caring for the space. Every municipal officers as well as the inhabitants of the Tenri city will take care of the place day by day.

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TP: We have featured your designs a few times over the past couple of years, and you’ve got a good handle on your style; what does design mean for you?
OS:
The role of design is to express and transform people’s actions and feelings in everyday life clearly and simply. Design is not the goal – design should be the glue to link people with people, or people with objects, or people with space.

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TP: So what do you find attractive in design, personally?
OS:
I want a pinch of humor, of friendliness, sometimes of surprise. It’s like the spice on my food, and that’s what creates a link between my designs and people.

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TP: Is this a style that you’ve grown into?
OS:
When I was a student studying architecture, I was taught to see things from a very high point of view. So when I designed a cup for instance, I had to see the city first, and then think about how the building should be designed, and then think about the room, and the furniture and then… then I will design this cup.

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TP: How did this influence the way you work now?
OS:
Now I’m thinking the opposite – I start from very small emotions, small ideas, and let them grow into furniture and interiors and buildings and public spaces.

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TP: Your work is often described as minimalist – do you agree?
OS:
I try to select simple textures, forms, colours, or finishes in order not to overpower the story with too much noise. I think the smaller the idea is, the more it ultimately expands into a bigger result, like a virus.

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TP: What kind of thing do you like to have or do whilst developing your ideas?
OS:
I’ve noticed that routine work in everyday life really helps me in my design. If you keep on repeating things every day you notice the small differences, and I feel those small differences become my design sources.

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TP: What routines are you working with right now?
OS:
Every day I walk down the same road, drink the same coffee, in the same chair at the same café, and wear the same outfit – a white shirt and black pants.

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Photography by Daichi Ano and Tadashi Endo

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